The blizzards of January and February seem like distant dreams to Colorado water managers. What started as a promising year for water supply — with above-average snowpack as of April 1 — ended Sept. 30 with the entire state in some level of drought.
The water-year calendar, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, is designed to account for the importance of snowpack in water supplies in the West. Every winter, precipitation builds in the mountains. Come spring, the snowmelt is stored for use throughout the summer.
Although snowpack levels have always been a critical indicator of the year’s water supply, other factors had a bigger role during water year 2020. Colorado had above-average levels of snowpack going into April, but below-average precipitation and high temperatures in spring quickly veered the state in the opposite direction. This year saw one of the driest April-May periods on record in Colorado, below the 10th percentile.
“When you get those hotter temperatures, it means the atmosphere wants to take more moisture out of the ground,” said assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger. “So the soils are drier and the stream flows got a bit lower. Then the vegetation was also a bit dryer and not able to keep the moisture that it did have.”
The dry, hot spring gave way to a dry, hot summer — and the results were striking. The water year ended with almost every part of the state in a precipitation deficit. The southwest corner of the state was hit the hardest, with precipitation levels below 30% of normal in April, May, August and September. Several sites in southwest Colorado — specifically, the Gunnison, Dolores and San Juan river basins — registered their driest Aprils on record. Statewide, reservoir levels were at 49% of capacity, which is 84% of the average for Oct. 1.
According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. This is the 10th-lowest recorded inflow into Lake Powell. Lake Powell finished the water year at 47% of capacity.
The low inflow to Lake Powell puts Colorado and the three other states in the upper basin of the Colorado River at risk in the future. Under the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) must be able to release 7.5 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) every year. Failing to meet this obligation would trigger mandatory water cuts in the upper basin.
Every year that flows are low into Lake Powell, the upper basin relies on storage in Lake Powell to meet its flow obligations. So far, there has never been a compact call, even in drought.
“We’re 20 years into the worst drought in recorded history. Yet, in every year of the drought, the upper basin has met its river-flow obligation to the lower basin,” said Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Marlon Duke. “In fact, across all 20 years of the current drought, we’ve released an average of 8.73 million acre-feet from Lake Powell, even in the driest years when less than 5 million acre-feet flowed into the reservoir.”
The Roaring Fork Valley reported average snowpack levels this year but saw below-average streamflow in every month except May in data available through July. The river is currently about 27% below its seasonal average. Reservoirs in the upper Colorado River basin are 82% full as of Oct. 1, which is 101% of average for the date.
High-temperature, low-soil-moisture trend
Climatologists warn that the trend seen throughout the basin where high temperatures and low soil moisture wiped out healthy snowpack levels is likely to become more normal in the future. According to Bolinger, if high fall or spring temperatures shorten the typical snow season by even a short time, it can drastically alter the time frame for the melt season.
“Precipitation is pretty variable around our state, so we are always going to see droughts,” she said. “We are seeing a very clear warming trend, and I think it is likely that the warmer temperatures will contribute to making those droughts more severe.”
Although climatologists and hydrologists are still unsure of exactly how every variable of climate change will affect water supply in the future, repeated dry years are already taking a toll on the state. After severe droughts in 2012 and 2018, Colorado’s water managers were hoping for a string of good water years to recover. That did not happen in 2020.
“It’s been a miserable year from a hydrology perspective,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller. “I would say that I think that we, as a state and as the West Slope, we need to be coming to terms with a new reality. We are seeing what used to be an every-one-in-30-year dry year coming every year instead.”
In an effort to deal with increased pressure on rivers, as well as a declining budget, the river district placed a question on the November ballot asking voters in its 15-county jurisdiction to raise property taxes that fund the district. If passed, the measure would raise nearly $5 million, most of which the district says would go toward projects supporting productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Starting 2021 with a deficit
While policy across Colorado is still catching up to the dry conditions today, models for the upcoming year indicate that the state may need to brace for another poor water year in 2021.
“Soil-moisture conditions entering the winter can have an impact on the amount of runoff that occurs the following spring,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. “Below-average soil moisture conditions have a negative impact on water-supply volumes because soil-moisture deficits are larger, leading to less-efficient snowmelt and rainfall runoff. It’s looking highly likely that soil-moisture conditions throughout western Colorado will be below normal entering the upcoming snowpack-accumulation season.”
The state also is experiencing La Niña conditions, which results in a dry fall. La Niña conditions are expected to persist into winter, which generally delivers the state a mixed bag in terms of precipitation. In a typical La Niña year, Colorado’s northern mountains see above-average snowfall, while the state’s Eastern Plains and the San Juan mountains in the southwest see less snow than usual. This could be disastrous for the southwestern corner of the state, which has experienced more-intense drought than almost any other part of the country in recent years.
Higher-than-normal temperatures also are expected to play a role in the 2021 water year.
“The climate prediction center is calling for a good chance of above-average temperatures in October,” said Bolinger. “That makes it harder for the snowpack season to start, and when you don’t start it right away, it makes it harder. You have less time to build up to your normal peak.”
This story ran in the Oct. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Oct. 17 edition of the Summit Daily News and the Oct. 21 edition of The Aspen Times.
Grand County rancher Paul Bruchez stands in a hay field near Kremmling, holding a small tuft of hay between his fingertips, twirling it back and forth, seeing how quickly it disintegrates after a summer without water.
The plant, known as timothy, is native to Colorado and feeds thousands of cattle here in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
This hay species and others are being closely watched this year as part of a far-reaching $1 million science experiment, one designed to see if ranchers can take water off of hay fields and successfully measure how much was removed, how much evaporated, and how much was used by plants. They also need to know how reducing their irrigation in this fashion affects the nutritional value of the hay.
If certain hay species retain more nutrients than others when they’re on low-water diets, then ranchers know their cattle will continue to eat well as they evaluate whether they can operate their ranches on less H20—not all the time, but perhaps every other year or every two to three years.
“We’ve spent centuries learning how to irrigate these lands,” Bruchez said. “Now we’re learning what it’s like not to irrigate them.”
Any water saved could be left in the Colorado River, allowing it to become more sustainable, even as the West’s population grows and drought cycles become more intense.
While similar small-scale experiments on five or 10 acres have been done before, this one by comparison is vast in scale, involving 1,200 acres of high-altitude hay meadows, nine ranch families, a team of researchers spread across Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and the backing of powerful water groups, farm interests, and environmentalists.
“We’ve never had a project this large in the state of Colorado,” said Perry Cabot, a Colorado State University researcher who is the lead scientist on the project.
The undertaking is sponsored by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, whose members include Bruchez.
“We set out on a mission to ensure we have as much science and data as possible,” Bruchez said.
The data being collected serves several needs. It should help ranch families see if they can afford to participate in these modern-era conservation efforts.
It will allow researchers to better understand what works on the ground and what to do, for instance, when rambunctious bulls destroy research equipment enclosures 25 miles from the nearest town.
And it will give policy makers insight into the political problems that will have to be solved, as well as how much money could need to be raised, to make large-scale conservation on the Colorado River feasible.
The $1 million, three-year project is being funded by the state and several environmental groups, with the money being used to pay researchers, buy equipment, and compensate ranch families who temporarily fallow their fields.
Water for Powell?
Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the water in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, and hay meadows that grow feed for cattle are among the basin’s largest water users.
Last year, under an historic drought agreement on the Colorado River, a new specially protected drought pool in Lake Powell was authorized.
Now Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the four states that comprise the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, above Lake Powell, are studying whether they can or should help save enough water to fill that drought pool. The pool, authorized at 500,000 acre-feet, is intended as further insurance that the Upper Basin won’t be forced to involuntarily reduce water use from the river under the terms of the Colorado River Compact.
Colorado expects it would need to provide roughly half the water for the drought pool, and, led by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is working out difficult questions about how that water would be saved and ushered downstream to Lake Powell under a possible voluntary program known as demand management. The research being done near Kremmling will help answer several critical questions.
Wendy Thompson is a rancher who also serves as the research technician for the pilot program, cutting hay samples and gathering soil moisture and precipitation data, among dozens of other tasks. She has driven hundreds of miles across Grand County this summer, checking each of the program’s 24 research sites every week or so, lugging an aging laptop from one meadow to the next.
She knows better than most that ranch families will need real information, such as how fallowing affects crop yields and soil health and production costs, in order to make decisions about whether to join in a voluntary multi-state conservation effort or to back away.
Intuition vs. facts
“The experiment is important to us,” Thompson said. “We want to make decisions based on the science and the data, not a gut feeling.”
Much of the work is grueling, like cutting hay samples week after week, and low tech, like measuring water levels in rain gauges.
But dramatic advances in satellite imagery and global evapotranspiration databases are helping people like Perry Cabot create science-based templates that eventually will be useful not just in Colorado, but Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and perhaps even farther downstream, on cotton fields in Arizona and avocado groves in California’s Central Valley.
“We now have the ability to measure the whole field,” Cabot said. “It’s becoming more accurate and it’s tremendously convenient if you’re trying to get a good understanding of patterns. We don’t have to rely on one data point anymore.” [Editor’s note: Cabot sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]
That this particular team has agronomists, economists and environmentalists pitching in with their expertise is also helping move the science forward.
“What makes this different is the scale and the depth of the questions we’re asking,” said Aaron Derwingson, an agricultural water specialist with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, which is helping to fund the project.
“When we’re done it will be relevant to more people than just the ranchers. We will be able to extrapolate these field conditions and what it means for water savings and the recovery of different species,” he said.
“It’s tough to figure all that out on paper. Here we’re getting down to brass tacks,” Derwingson said.
With irrigation season over, Cabot and his team have serious number crunching to do before they begin monitoring next year, measuring how the hay fields survived their fallowed season, how quickly they return to health, and precisely how much water was conserved.
Early estimates indicate that the ranchers may have saved 1,500 acre-feet to as many as 2,500 acre-feet of water this year. If this process can be replicated, scientists and ranchers could begin to see how long it might take to fill the 500,000 acre-foot drought pool at Lake Powell.
No collateral damage
But even more important to Bruchez and state policy makers is the impact the pilot is having on a highly skeptical ranching community, some of whom are deeply worried that they will lose control of their water.
“We wanted a project that would be as smooth as possible,” Bruchez said. “We wanted to simplify it and ensure there weren’t unintended damages to neighbors who weren’t participating.
“Some people were comfortable about what we were doing and others had great fears,” he said. “We just had to keep telling them, ‘We are not delivering water to Lake Powell. We are trying to fill data gaps.’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
A water court case is headed toward trial because the state of Colorado and a water conservancy district still cannot agree on whether the district actually needs the amount of water it claims it does for a large dam and reservoir project in the northwest corner of the state.
Expert reports from an engineering firm, an aquatic ecologist and an economics firm outline how they say the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District can and will put its water storage rights to beneficial use. But even after Rio Blanco reduced the amount of water it’s asking for by more than 23,000 acre-feet, a report from Colorado’s top water engineers indicates the district still largely has a project in search of a need.
In their expert report submitted Aug. 31, Deputy State Engineer Tracy Kosloff and Division 6 Engineer Erin Light outline 11 instances where they say Rio Blanco has not met the requirements of state law by showing it has a specific plan and intent for the water it says it needs.
According to the report, Rio Blanco has not shown a need for water above its current supply in the categories of irrigation, municipal use, recreation, maintenance and recovery of endangered species or a back-up water supply to protect against a compact call. State engineers are asking that part or all of the water claimed for these uses be removed from the court’s final decree and deducted from the total water rights claim.
A pre-trial readiness conference is scheduled for Nov. 13. The case is scheduled to go to a 10-day trial starting Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs, but the parties could still reach a settlement before then.
In 2014 Rio Blanco applied for a 90,000 acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River and proposed a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The district has now reduced that claim to either 66,720 acre-feet for an off-channel reservoir or 72,720 acre-feet for an on-channel reservoir.
There are two proposed versions of the project: one that would construct a dam and reservoir on the White River (the scale of this project is now rare in Colorado) or an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, in the arid sagebrush hills just north of the river.
The conservancy district would prefer to build the off-channel option: a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir, with a dam that is 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. An off-channel reservoir would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.
Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.
Disputed amounts and uses
Rio Blanco says the project should store 7,000 acre-feet annually for irrigation. But Light and Kosloff’s report says according to the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, the irrigated acres in the White River Basin are projected to decrease in the future, and that this storage project, because it is situated low in the basin, cannot serve the majority of the irrigated lands anyway, which are concentrated upstream along the mainstem of the White River near Meeker and along tributaries like Piceance Creek.
“Per the proposed decree, the applicant is once again requesting the court award irrigation use,” the engineer’s expert report reads. “The engineers continue to contend there is no evidence to suggest that there is a future water need for this purpose.”
Rio Blanco says some of the water would also be used in a future augmentation plan to replace depletions within the district that are out of priority due to a Colorado River Compact curtailment.
Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance in case of a compact call. According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.
By releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations, it would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
But state engineers say compact compliance is a problem to be tackled by the state and not individual water users. And since no one knows exactly how compact compliance would unfold (that’s still to be decided by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer) it’s not possible for Rio Blanco to have a plan in place for this augmentation water.
Light and Kosloff’s report says there is no recognized beneficial use that allows a water right “to provide water to users outside of Colorado for the purpose of allowing ongoing diversions of water rights within Colorado.”
Rio Blanco claims it needs three years-worth of drought contingency storage for uses within the basin. But state engineers say that there has never been a call on the White River below the town of Meeker, even in the driest years, and the likelihood of the reservoir being able to fill during the runoff season every year is extremely high. Light and Kosloff point out that not even Denver Water or Aurora Water have three times their annual demand in reserve.
The state also says Rio Blanco has overestimated the amount of water the town of Rangely will need, and that the need for the full amount claimed for recreation water is unsubstantiated, as is the need for water for the recovery of endangered fish species.
No comment from engineers, district officials
State engineers declined to talk to Aspen Journalism about their expert report.
Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink also declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
But another roundtable member says the project doesn’t hold water. Deirdre Macnab owns 4M Ranch, which is adjacent to the proposed project site, and was until recently the sole remaining opposer in the case. She recently pulled out of the formal water court process, citing mounting legal costs, but still opposes the project.
“Families living in western Rio Blanco County should be aware that a project that the professionals say doesn’t show any justification would put them in debt for years, and not just paying for the hundreds of millions in construction costs, but also almost a million dollars every year in electricity costs to pump the water up and over the dam,” Macnab said in a written statement. “Do Rio Blanco citizens really think this is in our economic best interests?”
Despite the state opposing the current project proposal, since 2013 it has also given roughly $850,000 to Rio Blanco in the form of Colorado Water Conservation Board grants to study the project. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 to investigate the feasibility of the project.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the multi-purpose water uses outlined in the project is the way water projects should be put together.
“Identifying the right-size project for the White River is still very important,” he said. “The specifics about the White River storage project as it’s currently proposed I think are things that still need to be worked out.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Oct. 6 edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.
With another drought year draining the Colorado River system, a new economic study suggests that a wide-scale water conservation program in Colorado to reduce stress on the river could cost more than $120 million, depending on the amount of water saved for use in the program.
The study examined how much money it would take to adequately compensate ranchers and farmers who agree to temporarily remove water from Colorado’s West Slope hay meadows and corn fields using a practice known as fallowing. It also looked at how such a conservation program would affect the farm economy and the communities and workers who rely on it for jobs.
“Potentially the program could be beneficial to the participants,” said BBC Managing Director Douglas Jeavens, a principal with BBC Consulting, which conducted the work. “The payments have to be large enough to offset any losses,” he said.
The water saved would go into a special drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool is envisioned as a way for Colorado and other states in the Colorado River Basin’s Upper Basin—Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—to further protect their ability to use the river’s water even as Lake Powell continues to shrink.
Kathleen Curry, a former lawmaker and rancher in the Gunnison River Basin, said the analysis covered all the variables at play.
“I thought they did a good job,” she said. “The numbers they came up with are reasonable.”
The study looked at two different scenarios. Under a moderate scenario it examined the impact of fallowing 25,000 acres of West Slope land annually over five years, and an aggressive scenario under which 100,000 acres of land would be fallowed for the same period of time.
The study, released Sept. 25, was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission. It adds important new detail to a statewide discussion about whether Colorado should participate in the drought pool.
Since the state began studying the pool’s feasibility in 2019, West Slope ranchers have said repeatedly that they can’t make a decision about whether to participate if they don’t know how much money they would be paid and how such a program would affect the local economy.
The study provides some preliminary answers.
Across the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores river basins, under the moderate scenario, ranchers would see a net benefit of nearly $9 million, while under the aggressive scenario, the net benefit would rise to $36 million over a five-year period. The water in the study was priced in a range starting at $194 an acre-foot and rising to $263 an acre-foot.
Individual ranchers who agree to fallow 100 acres of land could see an annual benefit, after expenses, of more than $50,000 under at least two scenarios, according to BBC’s analysis.
In modeling changes to the economy, the study found that 55 jobs would be lost under the moderate scenario, while 236 jobs would be lost under the aggressive scenario.
It also found that hay prices would rise 6 percent as supplies tighten and livestock populations would shrink by 2 percent.
Another key concern for ranchers and others is whether taking water off the fields could harm other water users on the river farther downstream.
“This is a critical issue,” said Jeavens. “But we think looking ahead we could design a program that either reduces or eliminates that risk.”
The pool would be filled with 500,000 acre-feet of water, roughly half of which would likely come from Colorado, should it, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, agree that filling the drought pool is doable.
Under a broader statewide study also underway, ranchers and cities would be asked to voluntarily set aside water for the drought pool and would be paid for whatever water they contributed to the program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is conducting the statewide feasibility analysis, declined to comment on the West Slope economic study.
Whether Colorado’s Front Range will embark on a similar study focusing on its contributions to the conservation program isn’t clear yet.
Previously Front Range cities have said they would be willing to contribute whatever water and/or cash is necessary to fill the drought pool in a way that is fair to cities and agricultural producers, as well as to different regions of the state.
The Colorado River, which starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park, supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and is also used to irrigate millions of acres of hay meadows, corn fields and other crops on both the West Slope and Eastern Plains.
But if the drought-stressed river continues its decline, it could feasibly trigger involuntary cutbacks under the Colorado River Compact for the Upper Basin states, affecting both Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range.
Though such a scenario is still considered unlikely, policy makers and others want to see Colorado develop some kind of insurance against such a catastrophic event.
Who would pay for the conservation program remains to be decided. Some have suggested that thirsty state’s in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin—California, Nevada and Arizona—ante up any needed cash. Others believe that a new set of fees or taxes could fund the ambitious effort.
Don Schwindt, a rancher who sits on the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the study is a good step forward, but he wants more detailed analyses.
“These numbers are as good as any that have been generated. But the simple answer right now is that this is not enough money to generate the water. For my operation, I have to have a higher dollar than those averages or I am going to go broke.
“We’ve moved forward,” he said, “but we don’t have anything we can take to the bank yet.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Here’s a guest column from Hannah Holm that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Lately, I’ve been savoring clear skies like never before. My appreciation was magnified by days of feeling trapped in the smoke from California fires, even as our own Pine Gulch Fire calmed down. Meanwhile, friends and family in Washington and Oregon are choking on airborne soup thicker than anything we’ve had to deal with this summer.
I feel vaguely guilty that the same weather system that finally brought us rain, cooler temperatures and clear air earlier this month also fanned the heartbreakingly destructive flames farther west. We share the air, and that gives us in western Colorado a direct, tangible connection to the fate of West Coast forests and fires.
Water connects us, too, even if the connections aren’t as immediate and visible as wildfire smoke. Most of the water that flows into the Colorado River comes from Colorado’s mountains, so a bad snow year (or decade, or two) for us means less water for the 40ish million people that depend on the river, from Denver to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Mexico. Likewise, more snow in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the eastern side of the Rockies reduces the draw on the river by giving Los Angeles and Denver more source water closer to home. Conservation actions in those cities benefit the river, and the whole river community, for the same reason.
Downstream conditions affect the headwaters in other ways, too, as desiccated, beat-up rangeland in the Four Corners area sends dust to the mountains that melts the snowpack earlier and reduces the amount of water that runs off into our streams.
Food also connects us, and food is very directly connected to water. If you like to eat salad in January, you need to keep water flowing to the Southern California farms that produce it.
To bring us back to where we started, fire and water are also connected, just as both fire and water connect far-flung communities. When the Pine Gulch Fire was at its most active, incident managers reported that the moisture content of the vegetation in the fire area was less than what you would typically find in a (perfectly flammable) piece of paper. That was a direct consequence of the same high temperatures and precipitation deficit that have diminished our streamflows and runoff into Lake Powell. Post-fire, we can expect ash and naked soil to run off into waterways, fouling fish habitat and drinking water intakes.
All of these connections are important to keep in mind as the states that share the Colorado River prepare to embark on a new round of negotiations over how to manage it. Representatives from all the states will face pressure to focus narrowly on enabling local water users to secure access to as much of the shrinking river as they can. That’s fair enough — no one wants to diminish their own future just to be the nice guy. But over the long term, it will help all of us to pursue actions that benefit the Colorado River system as a whole. That includes reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the atmosphere and intensifying both drought and wildfire.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields in times of drought could be similar to the secondary benefits resulting from the spending of those payments, a new study has found.
But BBC Research and Consulting says the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, potentially shifting from smaller, agriculturally focused communities to larger towns and cities.
In addition, the payments would only benefit the regional economy if they come from outside western Colorado, because payments originating on the Western Slope would only result in shifting money around within the region as opposed to creating a new economic benefit, the study says.
The research was commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which consists of the Colorado River District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
It’s intended to help gauge the impact on local agricultural economies should Western Slope farmers participate in voluntary, temporary, compensated fallowing as part of a demand management program involving Upper Colorado River Basin states including Colorado.
Such a program is being considered as a means for the states to be able to store extra water in Lake Powell so they can continue meeting their water delivery obligations to downstream states in times of drought, and head off potential mandatory curtailment of water uses under an interstate compact…
The study looks at fallowing grass hay, alfalfa and corn. It estimates that regionally it would cost an average of $236 per acre-foot of water involved, or about $470 per fallowed acre, to get farmers to participate. It says producers also may require payments covering direct fallowing costs, such as weed and pest control, and payments also may have to be made to irrigation companies for lost revenues and added management costs.
The study evaluates a moderate, 12,700-acre hypothetical fallowing program involving 25,000 acre-feet of water a year for five years across western Colorado, and a more aggressive, 52,100-acre program that would involve 25,000 acre-feet a year for five years within each of four major Western Slope river basins.
The study finds that the moderate approach would result in a minimum of a $5.7 million annual reduction in crop production, and the aggressive approach, at least a $23.2 million reduction.
Those reductions would result in an estimated loss of at least 64 or 260 on-farm jobs, respectively, although most of those would involve the farmers themselves who are being compensated.
The study estimates that when comparing that compensation to their lost farm income, farmers collectively would come out at least $2.2 million ahead each year in the moderate scenario and $8.6 million ahead in the aggressive approach.
The bigger focus of the study is what secondary effects would result from the fallowing due to impacts on businesses such as farm and ranch suppliers, and businesses providing household goods and services to affected workers.
In the moderate scenario, the study estimates at least 55 secondary jobs would be lost to reduced crop production, while there would be an increase of at least 27 jobs resulting from spending of fallowing payments.
Under the aggressive scenario, at least 236 secondary jobs could be lost from reduced production, compared to at least 109 new jobs being supported related to payment spending.
But the study says there could be a net annual gain of $546,000 in secondary income from the fallowing under the moderate scenario, and $2.4 million under the aggressive one.
Doug Jeavons, managing director at BBC Research and Consulting, said that despite the net job loss, the new jobs that would be created could tend to be in banking and finance, and those could pay more than the lost farm-related jobs.
The fallowing would mean fewer sales of seed, fertilizer, hauling services and labor, but could boost spending in areas such as purchase of vehicles and farm machinery, with some of the fallowing payments also being used for household consumption and reducing debt…
The study also says annual net secondary income also could fall with fallowing, by as much as $393,000 under the moderate scenario and as much as about $1.46 million under the aggressive one.
This could happen if farmers spend less of their fallowing money locally. It also accounts for the possibility that reduced forage production from fallowing could affect the livestock industry, driving up hay prices and causing ranchers to reduce herd sizes.
It says that based on what has been historically seen when it comes to hay production declines in the region, the moderate fallowing approach could result in just over a 0.5% drop in livestock production and a $3 million drop in annual livestock sales, and the aggressive approach, a possible 2.2% production drop and $13.4 million annual revenue loss.
The Colorado River District said in its news release that its board hasn’t weighed whether a fallowing program is good for the Western Slope, but is gathering data through efforts such as the study to determine if it would have negative impacts, and if so, at what scale.
It also said if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Slope agriculture would only be part of the solution and Colorado River users in all parts of the state must contribute water to the program. This would include Front Range cities that divert that water across the Continental Divide…
Speaking on a river district webinar Thursday on the study, Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said any Western Slope fallowing program won’t be one-size-fits-all, and would have to be structured to address local concerns such as soil impacts…
One concern in her district is that parts of it may have such shallow soils that they could take three to five years to recover from fallowing.
Another consideration is that some western Colorado basins export substantial amounts of hay to other states, and even other countries.
If fallowing primarily reduced exports, effects on local livestock production might be minimal.
But BBC Research and Consulting’s report notes that hay exporters may be resistant to jeopardize customer relationships by fallowing fields…
BBC Research and Consulting says measures such as split-season versus full-season fallowing could reduce economic impacts from fallowing, and ensuring that participation is spread widely across and within various river basins could spread out the impacts.
Chavez likes the general idea of widely distributing fallowing, but says that could increase costs for monitoring such a program, evaluating results and ensuring that conserved water makes it downstream to be stored rather than being used elsewhere.
The state cited as a reason the 14,000 public comments submitted in response to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released in June.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was supposed to have the final EIS out by November, with a final decision in January, but that ambitious time frame is expected to be pushed back while a “supplemental” analysis is conducted, according to Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“The extension will allow more time to consider the comments and complete further analysis, which will contribute to a more comprehensive draft and final EIS,” he said. “When you think about the sheer volume of comments, it’s going to take some time.”
Among those comments was a bombshell request by the six other states that rely on the Colorado River for water to refrain from completing the EIS until the states work out their differences regarding the legality of diverting the water across major drainages…
“The Bureau [of Reclamation] comes out with a draft that says, ‘We [in Washington County] need another source of water,’ but they don’t say why. The EIS failed to consider a water conservation alternative,” said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council
Frankel and other pipeline critics speculated that commenters or higher-ups in the Interior Department had identified “fatal flaws” in the draft study that could render the pipeline’s approval vulnerable to legal challenges that are sure to follow.
“The delay of the environmental review affirms that Nevada and the other Colorado River Basin States are having an impact in this process against Utah,” said Tick Segerblom, who represents Las Vegas suburbs on the Clark County Commission. “With climate change and drought threatening us every day, we must be vigilant until the end. We cannot let our water supply be sucked away for golf courses and green lawns in southern Utah.”
From email from the Colorado River District (Alesha Frederick):
Study found demand management could result in fewer agricultural support jobs and reduce livestock production on the West Slope
The Colorado River Basin is in the 21st year of drought, and major reservoirs on the river are sitting at less than half full. There is growing concern that agricultural economies on the West Slope might be harmed if Colorado and other Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) are unable to meet their obligations under the Colorado River Compact. With these concerns in mind, the state of Colorado is looking at ways to prevent such a crisis from occurring. One of the ideas Upper Basin states are discussing is paying water users to consume less water. The water saved would then be banked in Lake Powell. The states are calling it demand management.
The question is, if farmers and ranchers are paid to voluntarily fallow their fields, how would it change West Slope communities where agricultural businesses employ people, pay taxes and buy equipment? The recently released Upper Basin Demand Management Economic Study in Western Colorado sought to determine the secondary economic impacts that might occur if West Slope agricultural producers participate in a demand management program.
Consistent with its charge to represent and protect the Western Slope’s water interests, the Colorado River District has been actively engaged in statewide conversations about a potential Demand Management program. Through its participation in the Water Bank Workgroup, the District led the call for additional economic analysis that would help to inform the state’s decision whether or not to move forward with such a program.
“Our job is to protect West Slope water users. Studying the potential negative impacts of a new program such as demand management is vital to this work,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This secondary economic impact study ensures that agricultural producers on the West Slope have the information they need to make decisions about their farms and ranches. It’s part of the River District’s ongoing efforts to ensure water security for our farms, ranches, and rural communities.”
The Colorado River District’s Board of Directors has not weighed in on whether such a program is good for the West Slope. However, the Board is gathering data from efforts like this study to determine if such a program will have negative impacts, and if so, what the scale of those impacts is likely to be.
While the study examined the impacts of fallowing West Slope agriculture if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Colorado agriculture will only be one piece of the solution. If such a program is implemented, all types of Colorado River water users in all regions of the state must contribute water to the program. This study is not an endorsement of demand management but a study of its potential impacts.
The study examined two scenarios, a moderate and aggressive demand management program. The moderate demand management scenario considered a 25,000 acre-feet per year reduction in consumptive use by Western Colorado agricultural users for five years, while the aggressive scenario considered 25,000 acre-feet per year within each Western Slope river basin over a 5-year timeframe.
These are some of the key findings of the study:
* To pay producers at a level that they would incentivize participation in such a program, annual payments to irrigators are projected to range from an average of $194 per acre-foot under the moderate scenario to $263 per acre-foot under the aggressive scenario.
* For compensation payments and spending of those payments to benefit the regional economy, funding for those payments must come from outside of Western Colorado. If all that money was raised in Western Colorado, the payments would shift money around within the region, but it would not create a new economic benefit to offset the impacts.
* Growers producing forage crops including grass hay, alfalfa and corn are most likely to take part in such a program compared to fruit growers and small grain producers.
* Reduced production of forage crops, mostly hay, would require fewer purchases of items such as seed, fertilizer, labor, hauling and other services. This in turn could lead to a loss of an estimated 55 agricultural support jobs under a moderate scenario and 236 jobs under the aggressive scenario. Jobs supported by demand management payments could look very different from the jobs currently supported by hay production.
* Under an aggressive demand management scenario, a demand management program could increase local hay prices by about 6% and decrease the regional livestock inventory by about 2%. The potential price and livestock impact under the moderate demand management scenario would be much smaller.
The study was completed by BBC Research and Consulting and commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup made up of the Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
Beginning Wednesday, Front Range water providers will release water stored in Homestake Reservoir in an effort to test how they could get water downstream to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact call.
Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and Pueblo Board of Water Works will each release 600 acre-feet from Homestake Reservoir, which is near the town Red Cliff, for a total of 1,800 acre-feet that will flow down Homestake Creek to the Eagle River and the Colorado River.
The release, scheduled to take place Wednesday through Sept. 30, will produce additional flows ramping up to 175 cubic feet per second.
That amount of water represents less than 0.3% of current systemwide storage for Colorado Springs Utilities and less than 0.4% of Aurora’s storage, according to a news release from Aurora Water.
The Front Range Water Council, an informal group made up of representatives from Front Range urban water providers and chaired by Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead, approached the state engineer about running the experiment.
“The Front Range Water Council is, of course, concerned about what’s going on on the Colorado River in terms of climate change and the flows and compact compliance issues,” said Alexandra Davis, deputy director for water resources at Aurora Water. “We thought it would be helpful to do a pilot project to test some of those authorities and administration capabilities with the state engineer.”
The utilities are releasing water downstream that would have otherwise been sent to the Front Range in a water-collection system known as a transmountain diversion.
A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. This could trigger an interstate legal quagmire, a scenario that water managers desperately want to avoid.
A compact-call scenario could be especially problematic for Front Range water providers since most of their rights that let them divert water over the Continental Divide from the Western Slope date to after the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Many Western Slope consumptive water rights date to before the compact, so they are exempt from involuntary cutbacks under a compact call. That means those cutback obligations could fall more heavily on the post-compact water rights of Front Range water providers.
The goal of the pilot project is to see how the water could be shepherded downstream to the state line. Division of Water Resources engineers will have to make sure senior water rights holders don’t divert the extra water. Water commissioners are visiting dozens of irrigation headgates on the Eagle River to ensure this doesn’t happen, said Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro.
“We will see how much work and time and pre-planning it is going to take to make sure these ditches don’t pick up the water,” he said.
But even with shepherding, it’s unlikely the entire 1,800 acre-feet will make it to the state line because of this year’s dry conditions. Water managers expect to see transit losses in the form of evaporation and thirsty riparian vegetation along the riverbanks sucking up the water. That’s OK because this year’s dry conditions could mimic the conditions that water managers would expect to see in a year with a compact call.
“Not coincidentally, if there’s a need to do this for compact administration in the future years, it’s probably going to be under dry conditions,” said Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein.
Figuring out how much water actually makes it to Utah is one of the main questions this experiment will try to answer.
“That’s the perfect question to give validity to this pilot,” Rein said. “We will have a better answer for you on that after the pilot is done.”
Water managers will be closely monitoring stream gauges to track the release as it flows downstream. Martellaro estimates it will take the water about four days to get from the headwaters of Homestake Creek to the state line west of Grand Junction.
The release will be a big boost for streamflows in Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, which was running at 15 cfs near Red Cliff on Tuesday afternoon, according to the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge. The Colorado River near Glenwood will rise from Tuesday’s reading of 1,920 cfs.
The release will begin at 9 a.m. [September 23, 2020] with an additional 25 cfs coming out of Homestake Dam and slowly ramp up to 175 cfs, reaching that level by Wednesday afternoon. It will stay there until Monday morning, then ramp down slowly over the final two days to keep fish from being stranded in side pools, Martellaro said. According to Greg Baker of Aurora Water Public Relations, streamflows will still be below spring runoff levels and there’s no concern about flooding.
The reservoir release also could have implications for a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently investigating. At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.
Under such a program, agricultural operators could get paid to leave more water in the river, but the program stirs fears of Front Range water providers throwing money at the problem without having to reduce their own consumption, while Western Slope fields are fallowed.
Responding to those concerns, Denver Water’s Lochhead has said his agency would participate in a demand-management program by using “wet water.”
This week’s Homestake release is an example of how Front Range water providers could send water stored in Western Slope reservoirs downstream under a demand-management program.
“What we are trying to do is help the state engineer gather options and thinks through how these might operate in practice, which might be helpful to the state of Colorado,” said Pat Wells, general manager for water resources and demand management at Colorado Springs Utilities.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 23 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):
Reservoir release being made in cooperation with State Engineers Office
Beginning Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the Homestake Partners, which is comprised of Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, will make a one-time release of approximately 1,800 acre feet of water from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County. The objective of this reservoir release is to determine the effectiveness of current administrative practices in shepherding released water from Homestake Reservoir, located south of Minturn, CO, downstream to the Colorado State Line.
This pilot project was developed by the Front Range Water Council and utilizes water contributed by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as by the Pueblo Board of Water Works. This water will be released from Homestake Reservoir into Homestake Creek, which is tributary to the Eagle River and the Colorado River.
The pilot release protocols were developed cooperatively with the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, with the release expected to provide the State and Division Engineers, as well as water users on the West Slope and East Slope, with valuable information related to compliance with the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Compact. The project will test important aspects of administration practice. It will also provide data on hydrologic influences that would affect the timing and amount of the arrival of the released water at the state line.
“For municipalities that rely either wholly or partially on the Colorado River for their drinking water, it’s critical to understand all of the potential aspects a compact curtailment could have on our supplies,” said Pat Wells, General Manager for Water Resources and Demand Management for Colorado Springs Utilities. “Gathering this data before we get to that point will help us all plan for the future.”
As the water is released into Homestake Creek and travels downstream to the Eagle River and the Colorado River, the State Division of Water Resources will “shepherd” or facilitate the released water to the state line. The release of 1,800 AF represents contributions of 600 AF each by Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo Board of Water Works, and Aurora Water. This will not put any of the entities’ storage at risk; for example, 600 AF represents less than 0.3% of current system-wide storage in Colorado Springs Utilities’ raw water system and less than 0.4% of Aurora’s storage.
“The timing is perfect for this sort of investigation,” stated Alexandra Davis, Deputy Director for Water Resources for Aurora Water “Our reservoirs are well positioned at this time, even with the current drought conditions, and the lower flows in the rivers mean we will generate valuable information regarding protocols and practices currently in place for releasing stored water.”
The release is scheduled to occur Sept 23 – Sept. 30 and will produce flows of less than 175 cfs (cubic feet/second). These flows are higher than normal for this time of year in Homestake Creek and Eagle River, but within normal spring/summer runoff levels. There is no inundation concern for property adjacent to the tributaries.
The project also has the support by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.
“We are pleased these Front Range communities are taking a proactive step to address questions about conserving municipal water and shepherding saved water downstream,” Laura Belanger, senior water resources engineer and policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates said. ”This test release will help us understand potential benefits for water security and streams and demonstrates that all Colorado communities have an important role to play in ensuring a sustainable water future for Colorado.”
For the West this summer, the news about water was grim. In some parts of California, it didn’t rain for over 100 days. In western Colorado, the ground was so dry that runoff at first evaporated into the air. And in New Mexico and Nevada, the rains never came.
Bill Hasencamp is the manager of California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides treated water to 19 million people. What was most unfortunate, he said, was that, “the upper Colorado Basin had a 100 percent snowpack, yet runoff was only 54 percent of normal.” In 2018, a variation happened – light snow and little runoff, which doesn’t bode well for the future.
What everyone wants to know, though, is who loses most if severe drought becomes the norm…
What makes the Western Slope of Colorado most vulnerable to drought is a pact among seven states signed in 1922. It bound the states to give priority in a water crisis to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, potentially leaving the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming high and dry.
A crisis could be approaching. The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River are both below 50 percent of capacity. If drought causes even more drastic drops, the Bureau of Reclamation could step in to prioritize the making of electricity by the hydro plants at lakes Mead and Powell. No one knows what BuRec would do, but it would call the shots and end current arrangements.
Before that happened, California could “call” for the water it is owed — 4.4 million acre-feet annually. In that case, Wockner said, ranches and farms would be forced to go dry before city residents suffered.
For now, California has avoided flexing its muscle to get its fair share of the Colorado River. To stop the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to “dead pool” where power generation fails, California acts as if serious drought never ended. Since 2000, when the punishing drought began, California has cut annual water consumption by 30 percent, using both carrot and stick.
California charges the highest water rates in the West and also pays for efficiency. Under a program called Cash for Grass, “A good size lawn removal can net a homeowner $30,000,” said Rebecca Kimitch, who works for the Metropolitan Water District.
The state also invests in smarter irrigation, piping leaky ditches in the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River’s biggest irrigator. And it invests in desalinization plants and reuses some of its water via a program that was first derided as “toilet-to-tap.” More recently, statewide laws restrict personal daily consumption to a measly 55 gallons, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.
As for the Upper Basin, states continue to push not for water conservation but for more dams and reservoirs that would drain water from the basin, such as the proposed St. George, Utah, Diversion from Lake Powell. John Fleck, Director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico said, “it’s not a binary question of: Is there enough water? The way we need to think is that the system is at risk, and every time you take more water you create risks for existing users.”
Meanwhile, California is king of the Colorado River and wants you to know it.
“We’ll never give up that right – our first priority among all Colorado River water users — and never say we’ll give up that right,” Hassencamp told me. “ That’s our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution.”
For Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, this is a clear warning. As Hassencamp put it: “We recognize the pie is shrinking for good.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.
Risk of severe water shortages in the seven-state Colorado River Basin have risen dramatically since April with new forecasts indicating that lakes Powell and Mead could hit crisis levels much sooner than previously expected.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the change in the forecast is noteworthy.
“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” she said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for managing the two storage vessels and monitoring the mountain snowpack and runoff that feeds them every year.
As recently as April, when the last forecast came out, inflows to Lake Powell were projected to be roughly 75 percent of average this year. The latest report, however, indicates inflows will be just 55 percent of average.
In just five months, the risk that reservoir levels could fall low enough by 2025 to threaten power generation and the ability to release physical water to downstream users has risen 12 percent, according to Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, a hydrologist and water modeling expert, runs the modeling team for Reclamation’s Lower Basin operations.
The 21-year stretch of drought in the Colorado River Basin has made the system extremely vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Jerla said.
“In this system, one year of poor hydrology can influence the ways these reservoirs are impacted for multiple years into the future,” she said.
Reclamation officials stopped short of saying how states should respond to the dire water supply predictions.
Seven U.S. states share water from the Colorado River Basin. These include Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Mexico also relies on the river’s flows.
The two regions in the U.S. are governed separately, with the Upper Basin states overseen by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Lower Basin overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The river is a major source of water in Colorado, where it supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and irrigation water for ranches, fruit orchards and corn fields on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains.
Brad Wind is general manager of Northern Water. It serves cities and farms from Boulder to Greeley and is one of the largest water providers in the state. Wind said the rising risk levels aren’t that surprising.
But, he said, to help the drought-stressed system regain some semblance of balance will require much more work. “We can’t walk away from this.”
Last year, for the first time in history, the seven states agreed to adopt a basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan. The Lower Basin component of that plan is now complete and requires cutbacks in water use as levels in the reservoirs fall and reach certain elevations. Arizona has already had to cut back its water use in 2020 as a result of the agreement, and Mead’s levels have risen as a result of these actions and other conservation programs. Now at 44 percent full, the reservoir is the highest it’s been in six years, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
But the Upper Basin, though it has agreed to big-picture elements of an Upper Basin plan, has more work to do to define how a major piece of that plan involving large-scale water conservation, called demand management, would work.
Rebecca Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency managing the demand management study process in Colorado. She also serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, representing Colorado. In a written statement, she said the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan has provided additional security for the system and that the study will move forward even as conditions on the river worsen.
“Colorado will continue to track the hydrologic conditions, and work collaboratively with the other basin states,” she wrote.
With the new forecast, however, pressure to cut back water use is rising.
Since 2000, lakes Powell and Mead have lost nearly half of their stored water supplies. Back then the system was nearly full, at 94 percent, according to Reclamation. This year the two reservoirs are collectively projected to end what’s known as the water year, on Sept. 30, at just 53 of capacity.
Climate change and warmer temperatures continue to rob the river of its flows. In fact, water flowing into Lake Powell during that 20-year period was above average just four out of the past 19 years, according to Reclamation.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Hoover Dam, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, holds back the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead. In 2016, Lake Mead declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. Source: Bureau of Reclamation
Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
FromThe Associated Press (Sam Metz) via The Durango Herald:
After a relatively dry summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released models this week suggesting looming shortages in Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored – are more likely than previously projected.
Compared with an average year, only 55% of Colorado River water is flowing from the Rocky Mountains down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line. Because of the below-average runoff, government scientists say the reservoirs are 12% more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring.
“This is a pretty significant increase over what was projected in April due to the declining runoff this year,” hydrologist Carly Jerla said.
The forecast could complicate already-fraught negotiations between Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico over future shares of the river that supply their cities and farms. Those talks will draw up new agreements by 2026 about use of the river that’s under siege from climate change and prolonged drought.
Some urban and agricultural water users have been forced to conserve water to secure the river long term, but it remains overtapped. And as cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas keep growing, the region is only getting thirstier.
“We know that warmer temperatures have contributed to the drought of the last 21 years, and we know that they have exacerbated it,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said.
Unlike the 24-month projections that the agency uses to allocate water to the seven states and Mexico, the models released Tuesday simulate various weather and usage patterns to help water users prepare for different scenarios.
Scientists use what’s called the Colorado River Simulation System to project future levels of the two reservoirs. They employed “stress testing” techniques based on river flows since 1988 to determine potential shortages if drought conditions persist.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico agreed to cuts for the first time under a drought contingency plan signed last year. The water level in Lake Mead sits at 1,083 feet. When projections drop below 1,075 feet, Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by the plan.
Stress test models suggest a 32% chance Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet by 2022 and a 77% chance by 2025. The model’s median estimates indicate Lake Mead will drop by 35 feet by 2026.
The water level in Lake Powell is at 3,598 feet, and estimates suggest it could drop by 50 feet by 2026.
Click here to register and for all the inside skinny:
Topic: Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water
Monday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “West Slope Water 101.” This session will cover how water rights are deployed in irrigation, drinking water and recreation. Transmountain diversions will be described as will be the importance of water rights associated with irrigation in the Grand Valley and the Shoshone Hydropower Plant.
Tuesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Water Works: the Colorado River District in Action.” Learn how the Colorado River District overcomes challenges with its partners and constituents to protect the water security of western Colorado while promoting better water use and protection of the environment with projects across the district.
Wednesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Heating Up the Talk About Why River Flows are Down.” Rising temperatures are robbing the Colorado River system of flows. Drought, aridification of the West and reduced river flows are driving down Lakes Powell and Mead while impacting local water use at the same time. A panel of speakers will review the current science, the on-the-ground impacts and how two major water providers are planning for a new normal
Thursday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Of Primary Importance: The Secondary Economic Impacts of Demand Management.” The River District and its partners in the Water Bank Workgroup commissioned a study of how demand management of water, meaning not using it and sending it to Lake Powell, would impact communities if water were to become a “cash crop.” Spending patterns could change. How would demand management impact our mainstreet economies? How would it change spending at rural businesses such as local diners and mechanics?
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western water in-depth: Major science report that highlights scientific shortcomings and opportunities in the basin could aid water managers as they rewrite river’s operating rules
Practically every drop of water that flows through the meadows, canyons and plains of the Colorado River Basin has reams of science attached to it. Snowpack, streamflow and tree ring data all influence the crucial decisions that guide water management of the iconic Western river every day.
Dizzying in its scope, detail and complexity, the scientific information on the Basin’s climate and hydrology has been largely scattered in hundreds of studies and reports. Some studies may conflict with others, or at least appear to. That’s problematic for a river that’s a lifeline for 40 million people and more than 4 million acres of irrigated farmland.
From the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah to the urban centers of Arizona, Nevada and California in the Lower Basin, water managers depend on that science to guide their decisions. More than ever, as those managers grapple with a hotter, drier Colorado River Basin and growing demand for a shrinking resource, they need an accessible scientific handbook as they get ready to draft a new set of rules for managing the river.
A new report synthesizes that science and puts it into context. Titled Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science, the report released earlier this year draws from about 800 peer-reviewed studies and agency reports on crucial topics – weather, streamflow, historical hydrology and climate change – to help navigate the future of river management. It doesn’t provide answers but offers a technical manual of sorts for a river system so vital to the Southwestern United States and Mexico.
“It’s attempting to create that two-way dialogue, but to do so in a way that water managers aren’t having to go and read 20 different reports,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which helped fund the report. “It’s a fabulous tool in that [it] is one guiding document to look at if you want to increase your understanding.”
Written by a veteran cadre of more than a dozen scientists and engineers, it pulls no punches in describing a river system in peril.
“The average conditions, over time and across the basin, suggest a (barely) sufficient supply and, by smoothing out the variability, mask existing and prospective shortages,” says the report, produced through the Western Water Assessment, an interdisciplinary research program based at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The report notes that the ultimate aim of integrating new research into practice is to produce more accurate short- and mid-term forecasts of runoff and more meaningful long-term projections of expected water supply.
“The future is and always has been uncertain,” said Jeff Lukas, research integration specialist with the Western Water Assessment and co-lead author of the report. “Now, at a time in which the Basin’s water supply and depletions are in delicate balance at best, system storage is half-full, and climate change is increasingly impacting hydrology, these forecasts and projections have become even more critical.”
Improving Forecasting Tools
Funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and its partners in the seven Western states that depend on the river, the report emphasizes the need to improve hydrologic forecasts, projections and predictive tools in the Colorado River Basin, all the while acknowledging the need for resilience.
“There is not now, and likely never will be, perfect weather and climate data,” the report says. “Producers of climate information need to communicate, and users should be cognizant of, the strengths and weaknesses of the data they choose and how climate data choices influence their conclusions.”
Terry Fulp, regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, said the report emphasizes that Colorado River Basin hydrology is increasingly volatile and must be planned for accordingly.
“This made it very clear that we can’t rely on the 100-year record,” he said. “You can’t just look at the past and assume it’s replicated in the future. We all knew that, but it is good to have the body of science conclude that, too.”
Brad Udall, a senior climate and water research scientist at Colorado State University who was a technical reviewer for the report, said that while it covers an amazing breadth of material, it has key advice for water managers.
“At the broadest level, the take-home message is, a tremendous amount of science has been done in the Basin,” he said, “and while it may not give us the answers that tell us what to do, it strongly suggests we need to be prepared for a very different kind of future that’s hotter and drier.”
The past 40 years have seen a substantial warming trend, the report says, noting that the period since 2000 has been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average and likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.
Authors of the State of the Science report note they did not evaluate current Basin water management, address ecosystem needs or provide recommendations. Instead, they concentrated on assessing the chain of data and models that provide an understanding of the Basin’s hydrology, while recognizing how the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and its increasing complexity parallel the growing uncertainties about how future climate will affect hydrology. Absent a dramatic increase in rain and snow, the Basin’s runoff and water supply are increasingly being affected by warmth.
With temperature, there is “a very clear signal and that trend … is significant enough that people have a fair amount of confidence it is impacting the hydrology in the Basin,” said lead co-author Liz Payton, Western Water Assessment’s Colorado River Basin assessment specialist.
Those effects were evident this year as a warm spring quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack leading up to April 1.
“I’m still stunned by the 100 percent snowpack and the 52 percent runoff,” Udall said. “That’s just mind-boggling.”
Adding the Climate Change Factor
The State of the Science report comes at an important time. Fresh from completing unprecedented Drought Contingency Plans in 2019, key players in managing the river will next turn their attention to updating and renegotiating the river’s 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines, which expire in 2026. Crafted in the early stages of a two-decade drought, the 2007 guidelines along with the subsequent Drought Contingency Plans are a testament to managing the Basin’s extreme volatility.
Coming to terms on a new set of guidelines, including their length, will differ from 2007 because the last set of guidelines was based on limited modeling data that didn’t fully incorporate climate change projections, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
While it is hard to predict specifically how the science report will inform the renegotiations, its recurring themes of increased temperatures, reduced streamflow and variable precipitation “will almost certainly arise in the context of the modeling efforts undertaken in the renegotiation,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
New revelations about Colorado River Basin science appear with increasing frequency. In a lengthy July thread on Twitter, Udall noted the growing footprint of climate change in the Basin and how the expected pace of warming, which some models project could be as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, would greatly amplify the impacts seen in 2020. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey this year said warmer temperatures by 2050 could reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by as much as 30 percent.
“All of this has a name: aridification,” Udall wrote on Twitter. “Get used to it.”
The State of the Science report helps water managers understand key subjects, such as what climate monitoring is revealing and where uncertainty and errors exist.
Report contributor Carly Jerla, who manages Reclamation’s Modeling & Research Group, called it a “no-nonsense” scientific platform with a clear message. “We know we can’t just let history repeat itself,” she said. “This report clearly lays out that something else has to be done.”
Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the report provides a “one-stop shop” for busy river managers.
“Of all the many hats water managers wear, we are not researchers and we are not innovators,” she said. “It’s difficult to have an eye on all of the things we are doing related to species and policy and water supply planning and also be able to comb through the various sources of new hydrologic or climate change data.”
Like many, Pellegrino would prefer a consistent pattern of climate and water supply projections from which to base management decisions.
“It’s really hard for somebody who wants predictability to acknowledge there is going to be wide range of variability that’s going to persist for a very long time,” she said. “But that’s where we are.”
The State of the Science report stems from the 2017 Colorado River Hydrology Research Symposium aimed at giving water resource managers a better understanding of new hydrologic research initiatives, and giving researchers a better understanding of the Basin water system and the tools used by managers. Together, they explored how research could help improve those tools. That was crucial because research not fully grounded in the particulars of the managed system can produce alarming results. Hasencamp recalled one study that gave Lake Mead an even chance of going dry by 2021, a finding that dumbfounded water managers.
“We all looked at it and said, ‘What assumptions are they making?’” he said. “This is not very good science because they didn’t talk to the people who are actually running the system and managing it.”
Reaching Consensus on Science
The historical record illustrates the dramatic swerves in Colorado River Basin hydrology. Some years the snow never stops. Other times, unseasonable warmth and dryness dominates as officials nervously watch lake levels plummet in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Scientists devote their careers to figuring how forecasts and projections can improve. On the ground, life can be more stressful for water resource practitioners charged with providing a reliable water supply. Report authors acknowledge the conundrum.
“Given the stakes involved, it is reasonable that Colorado River Basin planners and managers desire greater certainty in water supply forecasts and long-term projections,” the report’s authors wrote. “They need some sense of the likelihood of hydrologic shifts, especially shifts to the dry side.”
One area of possible improvement is the 24-month water supply forecasting system that is partly based on assumptions of average monthly inflows to the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, said Payton.
“That’s a significant reach because if there is a lot or not as much inflow as the monthly average, you could shift Lake Mead above or below one of the important thresholds” that determine how much water agencies can draw from the river, she said. “If Mead is right at a shortage threshold and you have underestimated the inflow, you may end up declaring a shortage when you didn’t have to.”
Improvements in forecasting are needed from months to years to even decades out, said Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“Obviously, the long-term time scale is probably the most relevant for policy decisions, but the short and mid-terms are just as important,” she said. “The question is, if we knew next year was going to repeat the hydrology we saw in 2002, the driest year on record, would we make different water management decisions? I think the answer to that is yes at all time scales.”
Faced with uncertainty, Pellegrino believes the prudent approach is to be “eyes wide open” to the implications of the wide range of variability.
“Instead of identifying the hydrology that’s problematic or exact streamflow record that’s correct, spend your efforts coming up with the benchmarks for your water management community or basin that really mean something,” she said.
Making Better Decisions
For an area such as Las Vegas, that means preparing for more heat and dryness. Pellegrino said her agency has calculated that the creeping temperature rise could increase per capita water use by nine gallons a day by 2035.
Outcomes like that mean agencies should prepare for as many scenarios as possible, aiming for maximum flexibility, “like a dimmer switch,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy. Waiting too long to act could be costly.
“We should consider this time before a full-blown crisis as a gift,” she said. “We are on ‘water time,’ and developing new water management tools takes years. We should not squander this time now, because we will never have a perfect picture of what the next year or two holds. Trying to develop these kinds of tools in the middle of the crisis will create chaos, social and economic impacts and unintended consequences. It is much more effective to have the tools ready to deploy before they are needed.”
Fulp, Reclamation’s regional director, said the report helps reframe the basis for near-term planning and gives a glimpse of what to expect further out, uncertainty and all.
“You’re talking about looking at hundreds, if not thousands of different futures and seeing what the statistics tell us,” he said. “Is one decision better under a lot of scenarios or is it only better under a few scenarios?”
The flow of scientific data about the Colorado River Basin will continue. Some reports will generate more response than others. Amid that, the depth and breadth of the Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science stands out.
“We hear about so many studies with dire predictions for the Colorado River but I think the bigger meta message is we have this great collaboration among water agencies to gather more information about the past, present and future of climate hydrology to make better decisions and planning,” said Lukas, with Western Water Assessment. “That’s the story I like to emphasize.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
In a joint letter Tuesday, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement of Record of Decision regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the Seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
If the approval process for the Lake Powell Pipeline is not halted so concerns can be addressed, the letter states it may result in “multi-year litigation” that could also complicate future interstate cooperation concerning use of the Colorado River…
Despite a potential threat of litigation if their concerns are not resolved, Brock Belnap, an assistant general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said Thursday the water district hopes issues can be resolved without too much disturbance to the pipeline’s timetable.
“We appreciate that they express they want to resolve the issues they may have and we are pledging likewise to work with them to address the issue they may have in regard to the Law of the River in the Colorado River,” Belnap said…
An example of the issues some of the other states have is that Washington County is geographically located in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Belnap said, and the compacts state that water rights cannot be transferred from the one basin to the other. However, Utah is counted among the Upper Colorado River Basin States, and the compacts also say each state has a right to develop its allocated portion of the Colorado River within its boundaries, he said…
The government received more than 10,000 public comments on an environmental impact report for the proposed pipeline before Tuesday’s deadline, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Marlon Duke said. The Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, is expected to issue a final report, which could bring the project a step closer to approval.
Although the proposal isolates Utah from the other states that rely on the river, it’s committed to bringing water it’s entitled to tap to those who need it, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
He said the project has been under review for about 20 years, and many other projects have gone through federal review while states worked through unresolved issues…
Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, attended the meeting and asked if the committee planned to halt the project due to the concerns expressed by the other states in Tuesday’s letter.
Utah’s largest new water diversion in Colorado River Basin ignites a modern water war, results in veiled threat of litigation by other states.
In a stunning letter to the Secretary of Interior, a coalition of state water agencies, large water suppliers, and Governors’ representatives of Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are asking that Utah’s controversial Lake Powell Pipeline be placed on hold.
The shocking move demonstrates how out of touch the Utah Division of Water Resources and its lobbying partners have been in understanding the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River and of the Pipeline’s impact to the water supplies of seven states. The letter notes:
“As Governors’ representatives of the Colorado River Basin States of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming, we write to respectfully request that your office refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) or Record of Decision (ROD) regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior (Interior) are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
The strong letter of opposition was signed by representatives of the Colorado River Board of California, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Colorado River Commission of Nevada and the State of Wyoming.
They joined scores of groups and many hundreds of people across seven states submitting comments of opposition to the Lake Powell Pipeline to the Provo Office of the Bureau of Reclamation for the DEIS. The project drew criticism across the American West because the Colorado River has dropped dramatically with reservoir levels at 50% of capacity in an era of water cuts and climate change.
This is a historic first for 6 of the 7 Colorado River Basin States to reprimand another state on what they see as:
“Serious legal concerns relating to the 1922 and 1948 Compacts, including the accounting of the Lake Powell Pipeline diversion and other operational issues under the Law of the River.”
Utah ignited the water war with other Colorado River Basin states by pushing the Lake Powell Pipeline even without a demonstrable need for the water. Utah water officials justified the Pipeline with a high municipal water use of over 300 gallons per person per day, while other cities like Las Vegas, Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix have water use between 120 and 150 gpcd, or less.
In a separate letter, the Southern Nevada Water Authority noted:
“What the Utah Board of Water Resources characterizes as extreme conservation efforts and impractical conservation, are actually commonly applied in an efficient and effective manner in many other communities.”
“This project is water hoarding at its finest. Utah wants to cash in on its ‘water entitlement’ under the Colorado River Compact so badly that it is willing to upset the fragile balance of a basin that supports 40 million people, recreational and agricultural economies, tribal lands and cultures, and irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.” — said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians
“Secretary Bernhardt should listen to the six Colorado River states that just asked him to delay any decision regarding the Utah’s unnecessary and harmful proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. All six states, especially Arizona, would be hurt by Utah’s attempted water grab from the drought- stricken Colorado River.” — said Douglas Wolf, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity
“It is not often where grassroots groups and government water buffaloes are aligned on bad water projects, but the Lake Powell Pipeline is such a boondoggle that opposition is now widespread. We hope St. George finally begins to follow the lead of communities like Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others that have implemented world-class conservation programs.” — said Kyle Roerink, Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network
A coalition of groups also submitted extensive comments opposing the embattled Lake Powell Pipeline. The coalition has requested the Bureau of Reclamation explore other less expensive and environmentally destructive means for meeting the water needs of residents of Washington County in southwest Utah. This is also an Alternative identified as missing from the DEIS in the letter sent to the Secretary of the Interior by the 6 State Coalition. The 224 page letter can be found HERE.
The letter was submitted by Utah Rivers Council, Save the Colorado, WildEarth Guardians, Great Basin Water Network, Living Rivers, Glen Canyon Institute, Utah Audubon Council, SUWA, Conserve Southwest Utah, Citizen’s Water Advocacy Group of Arizona, Sunrise Movement of Las Vegas, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, San Diego Coast Keeper and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. It details flaws in Reclamation’s environmental review including challenging the basis and need for the project itself, the lack of examining more cost-effective and less destructive alternatives, and its failure to analyze and mitigate the environmental harms that would arise if the project goes forward.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is one of the projects identified by the Trump Administration–in its June 4, 2020, Executive Order No. 13927–to be fast tracked through the environmental review process.
The six Colorado River Basin states that do not have the letters “U-T-A-H” in their names just sent a remarkable letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with a plea – don’t let the rush toward federal approval of Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline blow up the Colorado River Basin’s framework of collaborative rather than confrontational problem solving:
The six-state letter, the product of intense discussions in recent weeks among the states (including the one with “U-T-A-H” in its name) takes great pains to point to an important historical norm in Colorado Basin governance – states don’t mess in other states’ internal water use decisions. But in asking to move Upper Basin water to a Lower Basin community, Utah has crossed a line that the other states simply couldn’t let pass.
Diane Mitsch Bush, the Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, pledged cooperation and Lauren Boebert, her Republican challenger, promised to fight — the Front Range, neighboring states and the federal government — to protect Western Slope water.
The two candidates on Thursday tackled water-related questions at this year’s Colorado Water Congress. Typically among the largest annual gatherings of water managers, policymakers and scientists, the 2020 series of panels and workshops has gone online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mitsch Bush answered questions live via Zoom, while Boebert sent in a prerecorded video. She was attending President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House on Thursday night.
Mitsch Bush touted her experience as a former Routt County commissioner and three-term state representative, and framed herself as a pragmatic problem-solver who uses science, not ideology, as the basis for decisionmaking. From her history of working with the basin roundtables, she said the best ideas come from listening to one another.
“I’ll work diligently with our delegation and the other Western states to ensure our Western voices are heard and our needs as a headwaters state get met,” she said. “To do that, I will work with colleagues across all the divides: the aisle, basins and states to rebuild our infrastructure so our communities can flourish now and in the future.”
Boebert, the owner of Shooters Grill in Rifle, made headlines earlier this summer when she beat Rep. Scott Tipton, an incumbent endorsed by Trump, in the District 3 Republican primary. The upset has thrust the conservative gun-rights activist and mother of four into the national spotlight.
Moderator Joey Bunch, of Colorado Politics, posed the question of how the burden of drought and a potential Colorado River Compact call could be shared equally by the Front Range’s populous urban center and the rural, agriculture-dependent Western Slope.
Western water managers desperately want to avoid a compact call, which could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) can’t deliver on the amount of water they owe the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). A compact call could trigger involuntary cutbacks in water use for Colorado, known as “curtailment.”
This scenario reveals an interesting intrastate dynamic: Many of the oldest and most valuable water rights are on the Western Slope, meaning the cutbacks wouldn’t affect them because they predate the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
But the state’s population center and deep-pocketed municipal water providers are on the growing Front Range. Some worry that Front Range interests will try to secure these senior Western Slope agricultural water rights so they can avoid cutbacks. Cities’ purchasing of agricultural water rights is sometimes derided as “buy and dry.”
Mitsch Bush said, “My top principle is: We cannot let curtailment lead to buy and dry of agriculture.”
Boebert agreed and played up the urban/rural divide, saying she is against more transmountain diversions to the Front Range and is primed to fight for Western Slope water. The burden for compact curtailment cannot fall solely on District 3, she said.
“I’m 100% committed to fighting this out with Denver and Boulder and making sure they don’t push all the work and all the costs onto us,” Boebert said. “Rural Colorado must have a voice, and we must have someone willing to fight for us in D.C.”
Both candidates agreed on the expansion of existing reservoirs to increase water storage as an alternative to building new reservoirs.
“The enlargement of existing reservoirs is the quickest, least expensive and most environmentally sensitive manner to secure more water storage,” Boebert said. “Increasing water storage capacity is key for Colorado’s future.”
Mitsch Bush agreed.
“Enlarging existing reservoirs is much more cost-effective for the taxpayer and for water users and much less environmentally challenging than building new reservoirs,” she said. “The best sites are already occupied by dams and reservoirs, so increasing the reservoirs’ capacity makes sense.”
After the candidates spoke, political commentator and former Colorado GOP state chair Dick Wadhams gave his analysis on where water issues fit into the campaign.
“Water is one of the most important issues we have in Colorado going back since statehood, and yet it’s the most obscure and least understood and least prioritized oftentimes by voters,” he said. “I do think with our dramatic increase in population that we are headed to a calamity at some point if we have a horrible drought.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative journalism organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. This story appeared in the Aug. 28 edition of The Aspen Times, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.
A study by the Bureau of Reclamation predicts that the current water levels in the Colorado River Basin will only postpone water shortages.
The study found that water levels in western reservoirs this year are similar to the past few years. John Berggren, a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, said the overall trend in water levels over the past 30 years has been downward.
Because water levels have been in decline, Berggren said one good snow year is not enough to replenish the reservoirs. He said this year will only postpone water shortages by a few years…
Berggren said dry soil, warmer air, and earlier blooms use up more water that doesn’t end up in the reservoirs.
At 710 feet, Glen Canyon Dam is the second highest concrete-arch dam in the United States. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)
Coyote Gulch in a borrowed hard hat on the deck of the Arizona powerhouse at Hoover Dam on December 13. 2019.
FromThe White Mountain Independent (Peter Aleshire):
Welcome to Monsoon 2020.
Despite a near-normal winter, a hot, dry spring and a fizzled monsoon has cast Arizona back into drought and water shortages.
Although the Rocky Mountains got 105% of a normal winter snowfall, runoff into Lake Powell remains just 52% of normal…
Combined with declining reservoir levels and plunging water tables statewide, the return to a water crisis in the state underscores the enviable position of Payson with its supplemental C.C. Cragin water supply and White Mountain communities like Show Low, Pinetop and others with ample groundwater.
The bizarre lurch from a normal winter to a reservoir-draining drought has also validated climate model predictions suggesting the gradual warming of the planet will create a fitful, ongoing water crisis in the Southwest. Studies show it’s not enough to have a good winter if a hot, dry spring melts the snow quickly and increases evapotranspiration, sapping the spring runoff.
So far, this year ranks as the third-driest on record statewide. Most of the state so far ranks as “much below average” with some areas in the south setting records. Most of California is now in record-breaking territory as the drought returns with a vengeance. Wildfires are burning out of control, with thousands of homes threatened.
State regulators in the Yampa River basin say most water users are now willingly complying with an order to measure how much water they are taking — an order once greeted with suspicion and reluctance. But challenges to compliance remain, including the cost of installing equipment.
Last fall, the Colorado Division of Water Resources ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use. Nearly a year later, most of those water users are embracing the requirement, according to water commissioner Scott Hummer.
“I am fully confident that over 90% of the people who have orders pending have either complied, are in the process of complying or have asked for an extension,” Hummer said. “So we are getting the cooperation and buy-in that we are requesting from our water users. They are understanding why we are doing it, at least in my area.”
Hummer is the water commissioner for Water District 58, which spans 400 square miles and includes all the water rights above Stagecoach Reservoir. He oversees between 350 and 400 diversion structures.
Measuring water use is the norm in other river basins, especially where demand outpaces supply. But the tightening of regulations is new to the Yampa River basin, and the order was initially met with resistance from some ranchers.
John Raftopoulos, whose family ranches along the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa in Moffat County, said he thinks most irrigators are complying. His cattle ranch has about 15 measuring devices, and he has to install a few more to be completely compliant.
“I know (the state) has to use them. There’s no other way they can control the water; they’ve got to have the measuring device,” Raftopoulos said. “You just got to bite the bullet and install them.”
State law requires water users to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches, but this rule was not enforced in Division 6 — consisting of the Yampa, White, Green and North Platte river basins — because historically there was plenty of water to go around in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state. Long seen as the last frontier of the free river, there has been little regulatory oversight from the state when it came to irrigators using as much water as they needed. But that changed in 2018 with the first-ever call on the river.
A call is prompted when streamflows are low and a senior water rights holder isn’t receiving their full amount. They ask the state to place a call, which means upstream junior water rights holders must stop or reduce diversions to ensure that the senior water right gets its full amount.
Although the order for a measuring device comes with a deadline and the threat of fines, Division 6 engineer Erin Light has been lenient with water users and willing to give them extra time to get into compliance. The process to request an extension is simple: A water user can simply email Light.
“If a water user is working with our office, we are not going to go shut their headgate off,” she said. “We are going to work with them.”
Light doesn’t have an exact count on how many water users have complied so far — water commissioners are working in the field this summer and haven’t had time to enter the most current information into the division’s database yet — but as of January, the Yampa had 49% compliance.
“I am not hearing anything (from water commissioners) about concerns of noncompliance. If there were problems, they would let me know,” Light said. “I have a fair amount of confidence that things are going well in all my areas as to compliance.”
Still, some worry that the cost of installing the devices — which in most cases are Parshall flumes — is too big a financial burden for some water users. The devices, which channel diverted water and measure the flow below the headgate, can cost thousands of dollars, which adds up for water users who need to install multiple devices.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable have teamed up in recent months to create a $200,000 grant program to help water users with infrastructure-improvement expenses. According to Holly Kirkpatrick, the communications manager for the conservancy district, water users so far have completed about $3,500 worth of work. That money will be reimbursed through the grant program.
“We expect to see a huge influx of applications as the season comes to an end,” she said.
In March, Light issued notices to water users in the other Division 6 river basins — White and Green — but decided to delay sending orders after talking with some who had concerns over the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a June letter to Light, signed by four water conservancy districts — White River, Rio Blanco, Yellow Jacket and Douglas Creek — representatives said they would be interested in seeking opportunities for financial assistance for their water users. Under the best-case scenario, it would take until spring to secure grant money and begin installing devices, the letter said.
“This year is a tough year to try and ask people to do anything above and beyond what they already have to do,” said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts. “I know (Light is) willing to give extensions, but right now, our folks don’t need that additional financial or emotional stress.”
Colorado River Compact influence
Some water users have questioned why, after years of not enforcing requirements for measuring devices in Division 6, the state is now doing so. One answer is that more and better data about water use is becoming increasingly necessary as drought and climate change reduce streamflows, create water shortages and threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
Division 6 has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as state regulators saw with the 2018 call, that dynamic is no longer guaranteed every year. As the threat of a compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A major unknown is what would happen in the event of a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
State engineer Kevin Rein said that without knowing how much water is being used, it’s a blind guess as to which junior water users would have to cut back.
“We could see the (cubic feet per second) amount that the water right is decreed for, but we don’t know how much is really being diverted and we don’t know how much is really being consumed, so we don’t know what effect it’s going to have on meeting our compact obligations,” Rein told Aspen Journalism last week.
It’s a similar scenario with a potential demand-management program. At the heart of such a program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send as much as 500,000 additional acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to help the upper basin meet its compact obligations. Agricultural water users could get paid to take part in the temporary, voluntary program to fallow fields and leave more water in the river.
But before they could participate in a demand-management program, the state needs to know how much water that an irrigator has been using.
“The first thing we need is diversion records,” Rein said. “If there’s no measuring device, no record of diversions and somebody wants to participate, they are simply not going to have the data to demonstrate their consumptive use.”
Since nearly everyone is making progress, Hummer said he doubts that enforcement will reach a point where he has to fine someone for not measuring their water use. Still, the transition is a tough one for an area not accustomed to state government oversight of their ditches.
“We are just dealing with difficult circumstances within the whole Colorado River basin system that dictates change, and folks don’t like change, especially in rural areas,” Hummer said. “But it’s here and it’s not going away. The demand for measurement will become more stringent in the future, not less.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, along with other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Aug. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe High Country News (Andrew Curley) [August 11, 2020]:
Colonial laws and federal neglect created a worse-case scenario during a global pandemic.
The Navajo Nation is at the center of the worst global pandemic in recent memory. Although the total number of COVID-19 cases is small compared to national hotspots, the rate of infection is among the nation’s highest.
Today, national media is focused on Navajo water insecurity — a clear threat to Diné people during the pandemic. About 30% to 40% of reservation residents do not have regular running water. But behind this statistic lies a history of racism and underdevelopment. Even as white communities benefited from decades of expensive water infrastructure, Diné communities were denied the rights and resources necessary to access the same water.
Water settlements between tribes and states are a source of much of this continued underdevelopment. For Indigenous people, these settlements also represent colonial dispossession, because they often suspend allocation of water rights and funding for water infrastructure until tribal leaders give in to the state’s demands. In 2005, for example, then-Arizona Republican Sen. [Jon Kyl] denied the Navajo Nation 6,411 acre-feet of water until it resolved its claims to the Colorado River with the state of Arizona.
While the U.S. was violently annexing the Western United States and vigilante militias murdered and displaced Diné and Apache people, settlers moved into Indigenous lands and dammed and diverted rivers. The settlers created a system that enabled them to monopolize the region’s limited water supply. A new legal and political concept became part of Western water law — a concept that favored the expansion of mining companies, farms and a booming livestock industry over the Indigenous communities already using the water.
The Colorado Compact of 1922 brought the entire Colorado River and its tributaries into this water regime. It divided the river into 15 million quantifiable units…that enabled the U.S. and Western states to more easily divert and distribute water, subject to the laws of the states involved. At the same time, under Winters’ (1908), Indigenous water claims were limited to the date when reservations were established, ignoring centuries of tribal use and governance.
During the New Deal, rural electrification bypassed reservations while the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation competed to dam and divert rivers in the Western U.S. Dams flooded Indigenous lands, killing ecosystems while providing power to settler communities. Water security was soon taken for granted in Western cities, while Indigenous nations found their water supply becoming increasingly precarious.
In the 1960s, cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas expanded. The federal government favored development policies that opened reservations for mining and energy. Coal was extracted from the Navajo Nation, converted into energy, and used to power huge generators near the Parker Dam along the Colorado River. Today, these generators move Colorado River water over the Buckskin Mountains and toward Phoenix and Tucson. It is an unnatural process only made possible by Diné coal. The water provided critical infrastructure for Arizona and allowed Phoenix to grow from a small Western town to a sprawling metropolis.
Starting in the 1970s, state officials proposed settling Indigenous water claims, seeking to resolve lawsuits between tribes and states in favor of limited water rights for tribes. Today, these settlements often contain money for smaller water infrastructure projects.
But these agreements come at a cost. State officials use them as bargaining chips during negotiations, creating an adversarial relationship between tribes and states. In two recent instances, Sen. Kyl deprived the Navajo Nation of federal funding for water infrastructure in order to pressure Navajo officials to settle water claims with the state.
In the San Juan River settlement of 2005, Kyl denied Diné communities in the Window Rock area water from the Gallup Supply Project until the Navajo Nation settled all of its existing water claims with Arizona. And in 2010, in yet another proposed settlement, Kyl refused to bring forward legislation that would free the 6,411 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River settlement and also included $800 million in proposed water infrastructure for the western portion of the Navajo reservation. Kyl claimed the infrastructure was too expensive. But today, these are the very communities that are suffering from high COVID-19 infection rates.
There are many factors that create a crisis like this. Water settlements are not the only one, but they are a critical reason why the Navajo Nation lacks water infrastructure today. When we see statistics stating that 30% to 40% of Diné communities lack running water during a global pandemic, they are not statistics without history. The entire situation is an artifact of colonialism. It is the result of decades of indifference, neglect and deliberate underdevelopment.
Today, however, there is hope: The Navajo Nation Council has allocated $651,000 of CARES act funding for water projects within the Navajo Nation. But a lasting solution will require greater investment in physical infrastructure on the reservation. The Navajo people should not have to wait for water-rights litigation or legal settlements before they get the water, infrastructure and power settler communities take for granted. That is why Congress should fund the Western Navajo Pipeline. This project, which has been on the shelf for at least 10 years, was part of a 2010 water settlement that Sen. Kyl rejected. Had it been funded in 2010, it might have reduced the impacts of COVID in the Navajo Nation. The communities the pipeline would have served are among those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. A tremendous amount of pain and hardship could have been avoided if the state had simply funded the pipeline a decade ago.
Andrew Curley is a member of the Navajo Nation and assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development, & Environment at the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at email@example.com
Here’s the release from the Central Arizona Project:
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has issued its August 24-Month Study. The purpose of this study is to project the year-end elevation of Lake Mead, which in turn determines the 2021 Lower Basin water supply conditions for CAP. BOR projects the Lake Mead elevation will be 1085.3’ on Jan. 1, 2021, which signals the Tier Zero supply of Colorado River water will continue for 2021.
Under Tier Zero, CAP’s water supply will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet. This represents about a 12% reduction to CAP supplies. The Tier Zero reduction impacts CAP supplies previously available for underground storage, banking and replenishment. In addition, the reductions will likely reduce CAP agricultural uses by about 15%. While the word “reduction” is never popular, the fact that in 2021 Lake Mead will again operate in Tier Zero status shows that DCP is working to stabilize the reservoir from experiencing deeper shortages.
The August 24-Month Study also shows, in the most likely projection, continued Tier Zero conditions in 2022. However, due to hot and dry conditions across the Colorado River basin, the risk of a deeper reduction under Tier One shortage has increased for 2022. The reductions under Tier One are almost three times larger than Tier Zero. But thanks to the continued hard work across the Arizona water community, including the mitigation programs implemented through the Arizona DCP framework, we are prepared to manage Tier One reductions if they occur.
Here’s the release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources:
The United States Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) has released its August 24 Month Study, which projects Colorado River operations for the next two years. The study projects the operating conditions of the Colorado River system, as well as runoff and reservoir conditions. The Upper Basin experienced around average snowpack (107%) this year, and the April-July inflow into Lake Powell came in at 52% of average. The below-average projection was due to extremely hot and dry conditions in the Upper Basin during the spring and summer of 2020. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell will operate under an annual release of 8.23 million acre-feet in water year 2021 with a potential of an April adjustment up to 9.0 million acre-feet.
The August 24 Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2021 elevation to be 1085.28 feet, putting Lake Mead in a Tier Zero condition for 2021. The Study also projects a Tier Zero condition for Lake Mead in 2022 with the projected January 1, 2022 elevation of 1086.90 feet. Tier Zero conditions require a 192,000 acre-foot reduction in Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot allocation. The Lower Colorado River Basin is in Tier Zero for 2020. The August 24 month study projects that the Lower Colorado River Basin will remain in the Tier Zero condition in 2021.
“This is more evidence that the Drought Contingency Plan that was approved by the Arizona Legislature and signed by Governor Ducey in early 2019 was a success,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“Its implementation offsets potentially deeper cuts in Arizona’s Colorado River allocation beyond the 192,000 acre-feet that the State annually has stored in Lake Mead for several years.”
These reductions will fall entirely on Central Arizona Project (CAP) supplies, impacting CAP supplies for water banking, replenishment and agricultural users. The Tier Zero reductions will not impact tribal or municipal CAP water users.
While the Tier Zero reductions are significant, they are part of broader efforts being implemented to reduce the near-term risks of deeper reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River supplies. In addition to the Tier Zero reductions to CAP supplies, other programs to conserve and store water are being implemented in Arizona.
These include programs with the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Gila River Indian Community, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), as well as Reclamation. Including the 192,000 acre-foot allocation reduction, Arizona entities conserved a total of 385,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead in 2020.
The August 24 Month Study shows that in the near term, the programs being implemented in Arizona and across the Colorado River system, along with favorable hydrology, have helped avoid a near-term crisis in the Colorado River system. However, we continue to face significant near-term and long-term risks to Arizona’s Colorado River supplies. We have much more work to do to address our shared risks. ADWR and CAWCD have jointly convened Arizona water stakeholders to address these risks and to prepare for new negotiations regarding the long-term operating rules on the Colorado River.
The white rings that wrap around two massive lakes in the U.S. West are a stark reminder of how water levels are dropping and a warning that the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River face a much drier future.
Amid prolonged drought and climate change in a region that’s only getting thirstier, when that reckoning will arrive — and how much time remains to prepare for it — is still a guess.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released projections Friday that suggest Lake Powell and Lake Mead will dip 16 feet (5 meters) and 5 feet (1.5 meters), respectively, in January from levels recorded a year earlier. Despite the dip, Lake Mead would stay above the threshold that triggers severe water cuts to cities and farms, giving officials throughout the Southwest more time to prepare for the future when the flow will slow.
“It’s at least a couple of decades until we’re saying, ‘We don’t have one more drop for the next person that comes here,’” said Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, the canal system that delivers river water. “But people certainly ought to be aware that water — the importation of a scarce commodity into a desert environment — is expensive and, with climate change, going to get even more expensive.”
Last year, with increasingly less water flowing to Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States — Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to a drought contingency plan that built in voluntary cuts to prevent the reservoirs from dropping to dangerous levels. The other states historically haven’t used their full allocation of water and focus on keeping Lake Powell full enough to generate hydropower.
Nevada and Arizona will make those voluntary cuts under the new projections, which they also made last year for the first time. But because neither state is using its full share of water, the impact has been minimal and hasn’t trickled down to homes. Mexico also is facing another round of cuts.
Lake Mead’s expected level of 1,089 feet (332 meters) is almost identical to last year’s projections because conservation efforts and a snowy winter prevented an expected drop, said Michael Bernardo, Bureau of Reclamation river operations manager. The wet weather didn’t last, prompting engineers to forecast the lakes will keep receding.
When projections drop below 1,075 feet (328 meters), Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by agreements between the seven states and Mexico.
Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
Lake Mead in 2001 vs. 2015 via the Department of Interior.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2020 24-Month Study, which sets annual operations for Lake Mead and Lake Powell in 2021. Based on projections in the Study, Lake Mead will operate in the Normal Condition in Calendar Year 2021 and Lake Powell will operate in the Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2021 (October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021).
The August 2020 24-Month Study projects:
– Lake Mead’s Jan. 1, 2021, elevation to be 1,085.28 feet, about 10 feet above the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet.
– Lake Powell’s Jan. 1, 2021, elevation to be 3,591.60 feet — 109 feet below full and 101 feet above minimum power pool.
Because Lake Mead is projected to begin the year below the Drought Contingency Plan elevation threshold of 1,090 feet, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will make water savings contributions to Lake Mead in calendar year 2021. Those Drought Contingency Plans, adopted by the seven Basin States, the U.S. federal government and Mexico in 2019, continue to proactively reduce risk in the basin.
“After a promising start to the snow season last winter, spring and summer turned very dry,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Thankfully, our reservoirs continue to do what they were built to do and are providing reliable water by holding it over from wetter years.”
The Upper Basin experienced a dry spring in 2020, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 52% of average. The projected water year 2020 unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—the amount that would flow to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam—is only 58% of average. Total Colorado River system storage today is 51% of capacity, down from 55% at this time last year. Drought contingency plans are proactively addressing risks to the system from the ongoing 21-year drought.
A key component of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin activities is the integration of sophisticated modeling tools and scientific research to inform water management decisions. Through a decades-long partnership with the Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Reclamation hydrologic engineers and hydrologists are actively collaborating with climate, hydrology and decision support scientists to provide advanced modeling tools.
“This scientific expertise is key,” Commissioner Burman continued. “It helps us understand what’s happening in the basin now and how changes to climate and demand are likely to impact the river in the future so we can best operate our reservoirs to protect water reliability for generations to come.”
Their work is helping Reclamation link advances in science to water resource management decisions in the face of greater uncertainty and increased hydrologic and operational risks. Reclamation’s modeling and operations teams further refine these tools, such as the 24-Month Study, to make annual operational determinations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead through close coordination with water and power customers throughout the basin.
All Colorado River basin states have the right to develop and use their water, in accordance with the compacts that form the basis for the Law of the River. They can do so whenever in time the need arises.
Utah is entitled to 23% of the water available to the Upper Basin. Unlike the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona and California), the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) receive a percentage of available water rather than a set acre-foot volume so their water supplies are adjusted based on actual flows. Utah’s annual compact allocation is 1.725 million acre feet, but its annual reliable supply (or the amount of water available for development after considering climate variability) is approximately 1.4 million acre feet — or, 80% of what was allocated to the state in the compacts.
Utah currently uses less than 1 million acre feet of Colorado River water — well under its annual reliable supply. Utah’s rapid population and economic growth has necessitated that the state develop its available water resources. Utah’s development of its currently unused Colorado River water complies with the law and does not jeopardize other state allocations.
For nearly two decades, Utah has studied the Lake Powell Pipeline (LPP), a $1.4 billion project that would deliver 6% of its annual reliable supply of river water to the state’s driest and fastest-growing region — Washington County.
Washington County has reduced its per-capita use by 30% while nearly doubling its population from 2000-2018. Additional conservation reductions are planned. County water use is comparable to other desert communities when calculated using similar methodologies.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently released its draft Environmental Impact Study on the LPP and determined that the project is needed, the water is available and there are few environmental impacts.
Individuals who suggest Colorado River basin states should “challenge” Utah’s use of its water fail to understand the Law of the River, which authorizes each state to develop and use its respective share.
After a year of meetings, workshops and in-depth discussions, state officials feel a feasibility investigation into a program that would pay water users to reduce consumption and add to a savings account in Lake Powell should continue.
Although no formal decision has yet been made on whether to implement a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan known as demand management, Amy Ostdiek, Colorado Water Conservation Board deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information, told the state agency’s board of directors on Wednesday she has not found a reason to keep from moving forward.
“I didn’t identify any points that would indicate to me that we should stop the feasibility investigation,” said Ostdiek, who has been leading and organizing the process for the state. “From my perspective, we have not identified a reason not to continue the analysis or any hard reason it wouldn’t work.”
At the heart of a potential program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send up to 500,000 acre-feet downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations.
Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool as an insurance policy in case of continued drought or further reduction in average flows.
Report from workgroups
In June 2019, the CWCB, a state agency responsible for developing and protecting Colorado’s water, named 74 water experts and managers to eight work groups tasked with tackling complicated issues and questions around the creation of a demand management program. The groups were divided by topics: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts.
A ninth group, headed by former Colorado lawmaker and chair of the Interbasin Compact Committee Russell George, has been focusing on how to ensure a demand management program is equitable among water users and basins. The IBCC facilitates conversations among representatives of different river basins and addresses statewide water issues.
Each group met multiple times over the past year and their findings, as well as their lingering questions, were included in a 200-page demand management update report presented [July 15, 2020] to CWCB directors.
The sprawling report summarizes the work completed by the groups and their overlapping key values, concerns and uncertainties. The sustainability of agriculture and agricultural communities ranked highest in the values category, while program design and participation ranked highest in the uncertainties category.
Several board members offered their opinions on a potential demand management program. Steve Anderson, who represents the Gunnison-Uncompahgre River basin, questioned whether the state could create water savings by funding more projects outlined in the Basin Implementation Plans instead of crafting a demand management program. The BIPs identify how each basin’s water needs will be met through existing or new projects, policies and processes.
“Once we become more efficient I think we would generate more system water for the Colorado,” he said. “At the end of the day we are going to have a choice between buying an insurance plan or using those funds elsewhere for conservation and efficiency.”
It is unclear how much a demand management program would cost the state, but one of the work groups is dedicated to the funding question.
The main goal of a demand management program would be to defend against what’s known as a “compact call,” which could happen if the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states, as required by the Colorado River Compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, which looms larger each year with the increasing effects of drought and climate change on an over-allocated river, because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
CWCB board member Greg Felt, who represents the Arkansas River basin, struck a dark tone, saying moving forward with a demand management program is necessary because one of the potential alternatives — involuntary cutbacks, also known as “curtailment” under a compact call — will be impossible to enforce.
“I frankly think that people are not going to accept curtailments on any rights the way they have historically,” Felt said. “From what I’ve watched this year in rural Colorado, people aren’t going to be buying curtailment. The water is going to come out of the stream. You can’t have enough water commissioners to stop that.”
Funding for next steps restored
With the first year of a feasibility investigation complete, the ultimate decision on whether to move forward with a demand management program lies with CWCB board members. The board plans to discuss the work presented by the work groups at a one-day workshop in September.
CWCB staff also are planning a virtual regional workshop for the public to learn more about the first year’s findings. Both meetings will be open to the public.
For several weeks there was uncertainty surrounding the future funding of the demand management feasibility investigation, when on May 1, Gov. Jared Polis suspended the program’s funding due to the COVID-19-caused state budget crisis. But the funding was restored in this year’s projects bill, according to CWCB Deputy Director Lauren Ris.
The agency now has until the end of June 2021 to spend the remaining $834,000 of the original $1.7 million allocation, should the board decide to continue delving into the issue for another year.
CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell urged the board to be leaders for Colorado on the issue of demand management.
“We want to do whatever we can to avoid a curtailment situation,” Mitchell said. “Everyone is looking to see what we do and how we handle this, and we do have a very unique opportunity at a very critical time to lead strongly on this.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the July 18 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the Executive Summary:
The Upper Division States of the Colorado River Basin are currently investigating the feasibility of a potential Demand Management program. Demand Management is defined as temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in consumptive use. The Demand Management Storage Agreement, one element of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) finalized by the Colorado River Basin States in 2019, provides the authorization for the Upper Division States to store water created pursuant to a Demand Management program in Lake Powell. The water would only be used for Compact compliance purposes at the direction of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Whether a program is set up and how such a program would operate are still open questions. Each Upper Division State must make an initial determination that Demand Management is feasible before moving forward with creating a potential program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is Colorado’s agency charged with setting the State’s water policy, and is therefore the agency with authority to determine whether Demand Management is feasible for Colorado. Following adoption of the DCP in March 2019, the CWCB Board adopted the 2019 Work Plan to help guide the initial stage of this feasibility investigation, to take place in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. The Work Plan had three primary components: (1) establish workgroups comprised of subject-matter experts and key Colorado River stakeholders, which were directed to meet publicly at least four times in Fiscal Year 2019-20, and to identify key threshold issues for board consideration; (2) regional workshops designed to facilitate the public discussion around Demand Management and provide opportunities for CWCB staff updates on the feasibility investigation; and (3) continued education and outreach. In addition, the Board directed staff to facilitate a literature review, currently underway by consultants hired following a Request for Proposal process.
The purpose of this Report is to provide an update of work done pursuant to the 2019 Work Plan. This report will assist the CWCB Board in considering the key threshold issues associated with a potential Demand Management program. The purpose of the report is not to provide guidance on next steps of the feasibility investigation. However, it may help shape the discussions and decision-making about the next phases of Colorado’s feasibility investigation. While the complete report provides a full summary of workgroup discussions and other work, below is a summary of each workgroup’s main discussion points.
To encourage agricultural participation, a potential program must be viewed as equitable and proportional while remaining voluntary; furthermore, it must be adequately communicated that the potential program is necessary to achieve the objectives set out in the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan and will serve as an insurance policy against mandatory curtailment.
In designing a potential program, care must be given to program design to minimize and mitigate on-farm and off- farm agronomic impacts such as reductions in crop yield and soil erosion, including the provision of technical assistance and information; furthermore, the program should account for secondary economic impacts and evaluate potential benefits.
Non-injury to water right holders and non-participants is critical and can be achieved through the possible consideration of utilizing existing change of water use approval processes and providing additional mitigation expenses to agricultural water providers to account for potential operational impacts.
Structuring the potential program application, review, and the contracting process should consider alignment with the timing of when producers make critical operational decisions and allow for some operational flexibility; furthermore, payments should consider all potential impacts including both agronomic and operational changes.
In considering the design of a potential Demand Management program, current programs in place similar to a potential Demand Management program, such as the Federal Conservation Reserve Program and Colorado Fallow-Leasing Pilot Program should be further analyzed; furthermore, pilot and demonstration projects could be useful in better understanding potential impacts and effects of temporary irrigation reductions and should be explored with an effort to capture the potential diversity of projects.
Economic Impacts and Local Government
Any potential Demand Management program will be voluntary; those who do not wish to participate should not do so.
In designing any potential Demand Management program, the initial goal should be to “do no harm,” meaning to minimize and mitigate any adverse impacts to communities. A number of factors should be considered in analyzing this question, including but not limited to the type of water use, the duration of the Demand Management program, the length of individual project participation, and the geographic location and concentration of projects.
Any potential program should create benefits for individuals, the community, and the economy wherever possible. Potential benefits may include avoidance of Compact administration actions, increased revenue to local economies, environmental benefits, and opportunities to improve long-term management of water and land.
A number of process considerations should be taken into account when considering how to assure no harm is done to communities where possible, or mitigated if there is harm.
In operating a potential Demand Management program, the process should be transparent and collaborative.
Education and Outreach
Workgroup members identified many challenges in helping the State explore threshold questions related to communication, education, and outreach needs around a potential Demand Management program.
In lieu of assisting with a communication plan for the active “investigation” process or a future program, the workgroup focused their expertise around priority considerations should the CWCB elect to continue with feasibility, project pilots, or full program development.
While it is essential to develop a communications plan well before a Demand Management program is enacted, content substance is needed to proceed in which common terms are defined across workgroups and state partners, clear frames are developed to help unite messaging across stakeholder groups, and essential content from FY19- 20 workgroups are considered by CWCB and incorporated into an agreement on a Demand Management program’s general (initial/draft) shape.
At this stage, there is a branding problem, as different stakeholders have different ideas of what a program may look like, how it can be explained, and how often communication is carried to individuals’ direct communities.
This workgroup recommends immediate messaging discussions to identify shared priority framing. Several guiding examples are presented in the workgroup’s final deliverable.
Throughout the investigation, workgroup members identified the need to help stabilize communication chains, the need for extra transparency, and the need to maintain an open line for all users to communicate concerns and ideas to/from CWCB and to/from one another.
A Demand Management program could provide opportunities for projects with net environmental benefits that would not be available under potential Compact administration.
A Demand Management program should not harm the environment, should build in considerations to minimize adverse environmental effects, and should incentivize projects that provide net environmental benefits.
A Demand Management program should use the suggestions in the Environmental Considerations document to evaluate project environmental benefits and impacts without creating an unnecessarily burdensome process for applicants. The suggestions should also be used as part of the criteria to prioritize projects. Potential environmental benefits are location and project specific and would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
A Demand Management program should identify project impacts and benefits to environmental resources including changes to flow regimes, instream flows, water quality standards, critical habitat, management/planning documents, and conservation needs and strategies if evaluation tools are readily available and applicable (for a more detailed list of potential resources impacted, see Environmental Considerations document).
Research and data gaps exist for evaluating environmental benefits and impacts, such as information on changes to hydrology, return flows, and wetlands. Streamlined approaches and methods are needed to make these assessments.
The funding workgroup initially identified a number of questions to help frame the conversation around funding a potential Demand Management program, including how much funding would such a program require.
To help quantify potential funding needs, workgroup members discussed factors that could affect a Demand Management program and built scenarios around them.
The factors included: volume of water needed, cost of potential program (i.e. $/acre-foot), percent of water savings expected from a Demand Management program (versus funded investments in infrastructure), acute or chronic need, year by which water is needed, and reservoir storage options.
Workgroup members came up with a preliminary list of funding ideas noting that not one concept, but rather a portfolio (potentially paired with a reverse auction model) would be beneficial: statewide tax (income, sales, property), regional tax, statewide fee, Bureau of Reclamation contribution, hydropower user fee, export user fee (i.e. Front Range water user rate increase).
Even with a diverse portfolio, COIVD-19 fundamentally changed the calculus and workgroup members expect we will likely see transformations in many water use sectors and the larger economies of the Western US if hydrology continues to deteriorate and Compact Administration becomes necessary.
Law and Policy
There are several open legal and policy questions relating to a potential Demand Management program, and the conclusions drawn could impact how a program operates and whether it works within existing law. These key legal and policy issues include, but are not limited to:
Would participation in a potential program be considered a beneficial use under Colorado law? What is the definition of Compact compliance?
How is program eligibility determined?
How is conserved consumptive use defined for purposes of participation in a potential program?
What is the appropriate definition of “temporary” in the context of a potential Demand Management program?
What is the appropriate procedure for project review and approval?
Monitoring and Verification
Quantification, measurement, monitoring, and verification must be honest, accurate, and defensible.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be protective of other water users.
Participation must result in added water to the system.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be as simple, easy, and flexible as possible while still meeting the first three principles.
Water Rights Administration and Accounting
Any potential program should take into consideration the appropriate process for changing the use of a water right from its current use to Demand Management.
The question of whether Demand Management is a beneficial use of water should be considered before a potential program is established.
Changes in administration and accounting for storage should be considered in establishing a potential program.
Appropriate scrutiny for any program should be balanced against the need for ease and flexibility.
Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this “trash fish” across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers in the Grand Canyon now spend weeks at a time, several times a year, monitoring humpback chub, which has become central to an ecosystem science program with implications for millions of westerners who rely on Colorado River water…
…the humpback chub’s experience is surprisingly meaningful now, as its river habitat deep in the iconic, redrock canyon becomes the subject of new scrutiny. New negotiations about the Colorado’s future begin later this year in a world that has fundamentally changed since foundational water agreements were drawn up, back when the river was flush and the entire basin was treated like a giant network of irrigation ditches.
Now, nearly a century after the original Colorado River Compact was forged, river stakeholders also find themselves in alien terrain as they try to reconcile an old management scheme with new realities, such as tribal rights, environmental protection and, especially, climate change.
‘The Pie is Getting Smaller.’
About 40 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado for irrigation, drinking and even hydropower. Most of the water is used in agriculture to irrigate more than 5.5 million acres.
Meanwhile, the Colorado is shrinking. Average river flows have dropped 19 percent over the last century. About half of the decline is blamed on global warming, and scientists project that unchecked climate change could nearly triple flow reductions by the century’s end. Meanwhile, basin tribes want to tap into allocations they haven’t been able to use because they lack means to store and pipe the water.
And thanks to research mandated by the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, the fate of the chub and the canyon ecology are factors that will also need to be considered in the yet-to-be-scheduled negotiations. Ultimately, everyone’s worried about losing their share of the Colorado River, of going home with partly empty buckets because there’s just not enough water to go around…
Water Rights: A Dramatic Struggle
The U.S. Interior Department must begin updating plans for managing the river, and convene all the states that rely on it, by the end of the year under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, one of the agreements that determine how much water is allocated for each stakeholder to use or develop.
Like everything about Colorado River management, it’s legally complex and controlled by a deeply entrenched power structure involving the seven basin states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and established users in agriculture and municipalities that have assigned positions in the line to the spigot—spots known as “water rights.”
But even the guidelines, which were implemented in 2007, have fallen short in the new, drier West. Last year, Congress approved a pair of Drought Contingency Plans, requiring varying levels of conservation to be implemented, state-by-state, whenever water levels sank too low at Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the ginormous storage reservoirs for Colorado River water. Both lakes dropped to emergency levels within months.
The original compact guarantees certain water volumes to the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California. The upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—historically haven’t used all of their allocations but plan to develop theirs, too. For example, Utah is pressing forward with a multibillion-dollar project to pipe 86,000 acre feet halfway across the state to the fast-growing southwestern part of the state. A diversion of water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s populous Front Range—killed and resurrected so many times it’s called the “zombie pipeline”—would use 55,000 acre feet.
Still, Schmidt said: “I am actually very hopeful. I believe that climate change and the real need to renegotiate agreements have brought us together.”
The role of global warming as a motivator for revisiting the water allocations probably can’t be overstated. The average temperature in the Southwest has already risen twice as fast as the global average and future temperatures are projected to increase as much as 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Climate change is just one reason Daryl Vigil, water director for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and interim director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, is determined to see tribes at the table in the next round of negotiations. He says the 29 basin tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water but were snubbed by current users from past Colorado River talks.
“The system is going to protect itself, to perpetuate what it already does because it benefits those who already are doing okay,” he said. “Familiar story, right?”
The exclusion, which amounts to environmental racism, means tens of thousands of indigenous people have not been able to access their water and tap into the associated economic opportunities, such as selling their water rights and using the water for energy projects, he said. Instead, other stakeholders are using tribal water without paying for it.
Another reason the tribes should be part of the decision making, he said, is because of their experience—thousands of years of dealing with water scarcity in the region—and their cultural views about the environment belong in any critical conversations about the Colorado. Otherwise the future looks “pretty catastrophic to us,” Vigil told High Country News this spring.
“When we start talking about climate change,” he said, “absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into Nature, rather than Nature fitting into us.”
[John] Fleck said the people deciding the basin’s fate need information about the tradeoffs. And data from Grand Canyon research will help them understand not only how to preserve a “sacred space” in American culture but also how to continue relying on a resource essential to the West.
As the Colorado basin grapples with climate change, shortages and declining reservoir levels, we revisit one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of “the Law of the River.”
As Utah pushes forward with its proposed Lake Powell Pipeline – an attempt move over 80,000 acre feet per year of its Upper Colorado River Basin allocation to communities in the Lower Basin – it is worth revisiting one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of what we have come to call “the Law of the River.”
The division of the great river’s watershed into an “Upper Basin” and “Lower Basin”, with separate water allocations to each, was the masterstroke that allowed the successful completion of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. But the details of how that separation plays out in water management today were not solidified until a little-discussed U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1955, in the early years of the decade-long legal struggle known as “Arizona v. California.”
Most, if not all, of the small army of lawyers, engineers, water managers, board members, academics, tribal officials, NGO representatives, and journalists now actively engaged in Colorado River issues are familiar with the 1963 Arizona v. California Supreme Court decision. It was Arizona’s great legal victory over California that cleared the road for the Congressional authorization and construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Many in the ranks are also quite familiar with Simon H. Rifkind, the court-appointed Special Master who conducted lengthy hearings and worked his way through a mountain of case briefs and exhibits before writing his 1960 master’s report that set the stage for the court’s decision. Few of us, however, are familiar with George I. Haight. Haight was the first special master in the case, appointed on June 1st, 1954. He died unexpectedly in late July 1955. Two weeks before his death he made a critical decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court and set the basic direction of the case. Today, as the basin grapples with climate change, shortages, declining reservoir levels, and most recently, Utah’s quest to build the Lake Powell Pipeline exporting a portion of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin to meet future needs in the St. George area, Haight’s forgotten opinion looms large.
In late 1952 when Arizona filed the case, it was about disputed issues over the interpretation of both the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act. Among its claims for relief, Arizona asked the court to find that it was entitled to 3.8 million acre-feet under Articles III(a) & (b) of the compact (less a small amount for Lower Basin uses by New Mexico in the Gila River and Utah in the Virgin River drainages), that under the Boulder Canyon Project Act California was strictly limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, that its “stream depletion” theory of measuring compact apportionments be approved, and that evaporation off Lake Mead be assigned to each Lower Division state in proportion to their benefits from Lake Mead. California, of course, vigorously opposed Arizona’s claims. One of California’s first moves was to file a motion with Haight to bring into the case as “indispensable” parties the Upper Division states; Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. California’s logic was that the compact issues raised by Arizona impacted both basins and every basin state (history has shown California was right on).
The Upper Division states were desperately opposed to participating in the case. Backing the clock up to the early 1950s, these states, including Arizona, had successfully negotiated, ratified, and obtained Congressional approval for the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. They were now actively seeking Congressional legislation for the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA), the federal law that would authorize Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and numerous other Upper Basin projects. Upper Basin officials feared that if they became actively involved in Arizona v. California, California’s powerful Congressional delegation would use it as an excuse to delay approval of CRSPA (as it had successfully done with the CAP). Thus, these states and their close ally, Arizona, opposed California’s motion.
The basis of their opposition was relatively simple; Under the compact, except for the Upper Basin’s obligations at Lee Ferry, the basins were separate hydrologic entities, the issues raised by Arizona were solely Lower Basin matters, and that Arizona was asking for nothing from the Upper Division states. Their strategy worked. In a July 11, 1955 opinion, Haight recommended California’s motion be denied. By a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld his recommendation and, except for Utah and New Mexico as to their Lower Basin interests only, the Upper Division states were out of the case. The Upper Division states cheered the decision. Arizona’s crafty Mark Wilmer devised a new litigation strategy built on Haight’s logic and ultimately his successor, Simon Rifkind, ruled that there was no need to decide any issue related to the compact. For more details, see Science Be Dammed, Chapter 15.
In convincing Special Master Haight to deny California’s motion, Arizona and the Upper Division states turned him into an ardent fan of the Colorado River Compact. Haight opined “The compact followed years of controversy between the states involved. It was an act seemingly based on thorough knowledge by the negotiators. It must have been difficult of accomplishment. It was the product of real statesmanship.” In justifying his decision, he found “The Colorado River Compact evidences far seeing practical statesmanship. The division of the Colorado River System waters into Upper and Lower Basins was, and is, one of its most important features. It left to each Basin the solution to that Basin’s problems and did not tie to either Basin the intra-basin problems of the other.” A few pages later, he says “The Compact, by its terms, provides two separate groups in the Colorado River Basin. Each of these is independent in its sphere. The members of each group make the determinations respecting that group’s problems,” and finally “because by Article III of the Colorado River Compact there was apportioned to each basin a given amount of water, and it is impossible for the Upper Basin States to have any interest in water allocated to the Lower Basin States.”
Fifty five years later, how would Special Master Haight view the problems the Colorado River Basin is facing where climate change is impacting the water available to both basins, through the coordinated operation of Lakes Mead and Powell the basin’s drought contingency plans are interconnected, critical environmental resources in the Grand Canyon, located in the Lower Basin, are impacted by the Upper Basin’s Glen Canyon Dam, and most recently two states, New Mexico and Utah, have found it desirable to use a portion of each’s Upper Basin water in the Lower Basin? With one major exception, I think he would be pleased. Haight understood that through Article VI, the compact parties had a path to resolve their disputes and implement creative solutions. The first part of Article VI sets forth a formal approach where each state governor appoints a commissioner, the commissioners meet and negotiate a solution to the issue at hand and then take the solution back to their states for legislative ratification. This formal process has never been used, but luckily, Article VI also provides an alternative. The last sentence states “nothing herein contained shall prevent the adjustment of any such claim or controversy by any present method or by direct future legislative action of the interested states.” After Arizona refused to ratify the compact in the 1920s Colorado’s Delph Carpenter successfully used federal legislation to implement a six-state ratification strategy (the Boulder Canyon Project Act).
The exception that would concern Haight is Utah’s unilateral decision to transfer about 80,000 acre-feet of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin via the Lake Powell Pipeline. The LPP violates the basic rationale that Haight used to keep the Upper Basin out of Arizona v. California and for which Utah and its sister Upper Division states fought so hard. The project uses water apportioned for exclusive use in the Upper Basin, terms carefully defined by the compact negotiators, to solve a water supply problem in the Lower Basin.
Defenders of Utah’s may believe a precedent has already been set– the Navajo-Gallup Pipeline, which delivers 7,500 acre-feet of New Mexico’s Upper Basin water to the community of Gallup and areas of the eastern Navajo Nation. But if that is to be cited as a precedent, it comes with an important caveat. New Mexico addressed the compact issues through federal legislation with the participation and consent of the other basin states and stakeholders. Utah, by comparison, apparently believes federal legislation, and by implication the consent of others in the basin, is not needed.
In the face of climate change induced declining river flows and increased competition for the river’s water, there is no question that the basic compact ground rules devised by the negotiators a century ago will face increasing pressure. There will likely be more future projects and decisions that, like the LPP, will challenge the strict language of the compact. The question now facing the basin is how will this revisiting be accomplished? Will it be done in an open and transparent manner that engages not just the states, but a broad range of stakeholders and implemented through legislation (not easy in today’s world, as a practical matter it requires no opposition from any major party to get through the Senate) or by a series of unilateral decisions designed to benefit or advantage individual states or specific entities, but with no input or buy-in from the basin as a whole?
If, like me, you live in Los Angeles — or Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City — you drink water from the Colorado River. You probably eat vegetables grown with Colorado River water, and maybe you eat beef fed on alfalfa grown with Colorado River water. When you switch on a light or charge your phone, some of the electricity may be generated by Colorado River water.
The Colorado, in other words, makes life possible in the American West.
Nowhere is that more true than the Imperial Valley, a sun-baked desert in California’s southeastern corner where around 500 landowning families use Colorado River water to grow much of the country’s winter vegetables. I’ve spent lots of time there as a reporter. It’s a tragic and beautiful place. Beautiful in the way the sunlight glints across a lattice of irrigation canals that crisscross endless green farm fields, and tragic in the widespread poverty and pollution that undergird a lucrative agricultural economy.
And more recently, tragic because Imperial County has California’s highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases.
In terms of water, the valley is especially important because the Imperial Irrigation District holds a right to an astounding 3.1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s annual flow. That’s roughly 20% of all the river’s water allocated across seven western states. It’s about two-thirds of California’s stake in the Colorado, and as much as Arizona and Nevada receive combined.
Climate change, meanwhile, is diminishing the river’s flow, which is especially worrying because longstanding legal agreements already promise western states more water from the Colorado than is typically available, as John Fleck and Eric Kuhn detailed in a recent book. There’s a reckoning coming, unless cities and farm districts across the West band together to limit consumption.
The coming dealmaking will almost certainly need to involve the river’s largest water user, the Imperial Irrigation District.
But at the moment, it’s unclear to what extent the district actually controls the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water.
That was the issue debated in a San Diego courtroom last week, or at least a video conference standing in for a courtroom. A three-judge appellate court panel heard arguments from lawyers for the irrigation district and landowning farmer Mike Abatti, who sued the agency to overturn a water apportionment plan that he says would unjustly limit his use of water for irrigation.
Who is Mike Abatti? As a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, I spent many months investigating his enormous influence in the Imperial Valley. I discovered a pattern of government officials with ties to Abatti making decisions that advanced his financial interests — including a public agency that awarded a $35-million energy contract to a company led by Abatti, and a district attorney who publicly cleared Abatti of wrongdoing on the energy contract after describing him as a “good friend.”
I also found that the trial court judge who presided over Abatti’s water lawsuit against the Imperial Irrigation District — and ruled in his favor — had a long history of business and social ties to the Abatti family.
In a sweeping decision, Judge L. Brooks Anderholt found that Imperial Valley farmers hold a “constitutionally protected property right” to the region’s Colorado River water, and that the irrigation district’s elected board members have a limited ability to reduce deliveries to agricultural users. Anderholt’s ruling seemed to tilt the balance of power from the district to landowning farmers…
Lawyers for both sides focused their arguments on the central question of who controls the water.
Abatti’s attorney, Cheryl Orr, said farmers have a right to however much water they “reasonably need” to cultivate their crops, based on past use. (Farmers currently use 97% of the Imperial Valley’s water.) Orr told the judges that under established law, farmers “have a priority of water that is different and higher than just an ordinary use,” such as household drinking water.
The irrigation district board “just unilaterally determined that they were going to reorder the priorities and put agriculture at the bottom of the list,” Orr said. “They’re treating farmers as customers of the water district. And they’re not customers.”
Irrigation district attorney Jennifer Meeker countered that the agency’s elected board members have wide latitude in how they apportion water, so long as they don’t cut off deliveries to farmers. A constitutionally protected property right, she said, would give farmers “a first grab at the water to fulfill all of their past use, and then whatever’s left can go to anybody else.”
“If you get to a point where there is such a shortage that there just simply is not enough water, everybody is going to end up being curtailed,” Meeker told the judges. The irrigation district’s elected board, she said, “has the right and the discretion” to develop a plan for spreading water cutbacks fairly among farmers, cities and industrial users such as geothermal power plants.
Whichever side wins, the outcome is liable to radiate outward across the West, like a stone creating ripples in a reservoir.
More control for the landowning farmers could make future Colorado River negotiations more difficult — or make it harder for growing cities to acquire water supplies that rightfully belong to the Imperial Valley, depending on how you look at it.
It’s not just Abatti’s lawsuit that could affect Imperial’s role in high-stakes Colorado River negotiations. Local politics are an important factor, too. In April, I wrote about a contentious election for a seat on the irrigation district board. The campaign has fueled rampant speculation over which candidates might secretly be backed by which local power brokers — including Abatti.
Use of Colorado River water in the three states of the river’s lower basin fell to a 33-year low in 2019, amid growing awareness of the precarity of the region’s water supply in a drying and warming climate.
Arizona, California, and Nevada combined to consume just over 6.5 million acre-feet last year, according to an annual audit from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the lower basin. That is about 1 million acre-feet less than the three states are entitled to use under a legal compact that divides the Colorado River’s waters.
The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.
States have grappled in the last two decades with declining water levels in the basin’s main reservoirs — Mead and Powell — while reckoning with clear scientific evidence that climate change is already constricting the iconic river and will do further damage as temperatures rise.
For water managers, the steady drop in water consumption in recent years is a signal that conservation efforts are working and that they are not helpless in the face of daunting environmental changes.
“It’s quite a turnaround from where we were a decade ago and really, I think, optimistic for dealing with chronic shortages on the river in the future, knowing that we can turn the dial back and reduce demand significantly, all three states combined,” said Bill Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional wholesaler and one of the river’s largest users.
Observers of the basin’s intricate politics are also impressed with the trend lines for a watershed that irrigates about 5 million acres of farmland and provides 40 million people in two countries and 29 tribal nations with a portion of their water.
“It is an incredibly important demonstration of the fact that we can use less water in this incredibly important water-use region,” John Fleck told Circle of Blue. Fleck is the director of the University of New Mexico water resources program.
Projections for 2020 indicate that conservation will continue, though not quite at last year’s pace. Halfway through the year, the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts water consumption to be roughly 6.8 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water that will flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or 325,851 gallons.
“I have to give them credit,” Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University, told Circle of Blue about the lower basin states. “They’re working hard to get these numbers.”
Raising Lake Mead
Just five years ago, in 2015, the three states were making use of their entire 7.5-million-acre-foot allotment. By statute and tradition, the basin is divided into a lower basin, where use is higher, and an upper basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The basins have different water allocation systems and rules governing its use.
In the lower basin, Arizona’s annual allocation is 2.8 million acre-feet, but last year it used just 2.5 million. Nevada used 233,000 of its 300,000 acre-feet. The big savings were in California, which used only 3.8 million of its 4.4 million acre-feet. California hasn’t used that little water from the Colorado since the 1950s, Fleck said.
The drop in California last year is due in large part to Metropolitan Water District, which consumed only 537,000 acre-feet. Five years ago, the district’s tally was around 1 million acre-feet per year. Urban conservation and development of local water sources have played a large role in the decline, but the district’s Colorado River water use is also influenced by snow levels in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When more water is available to be imported from the northern part of the state, as it was last year, the district leans less heavily on the Colorado River.
Reclamation’s annual audit measures the amount of water consumed by humans, plants, and animals in the lower basin. Consumptive use equals total withdrawals minus any water that is returned to the river system, from irrigation runoff or wastewater treatment plants.
As meticulous as it is, the audit neglects a significant piece of the basin’s water budget: evaporation from reservoirs and system losses, which is water consumed by riverside vegetation and absorbed by the ground. Together, these add up to about 1 million acre-feet per year, Jeremy Dodds, water accounting and verification group manager for Reclamation, told Circle of Blue.
This factor is part of the lower basin’s “structural deficit,” which means that total demand in the lower basin — use by Arizona, California, and Nevada, plus evaporation and required deliveries to Mexico — exceeds the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the lower basin’s supply source.
Gimbel, who was the principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of Interior from 2014 to 2016, said that despite the conservation efforts reflected in the audit, the lower basin still has much work to do. “They’re closing the deficit, but they’re not there yet,” she said.
The goal of the lower basin’s conservation is to keep Lake Mead from a precipitous decline into “dead pool” territory, where the reservoir is too low to send water downstream. The dead-pool threshold is at elevation 895 feet. Not using 1 million acre-feet last year most certainly helped the reservoir. Dodds said that at the current elevation of 1,089 feet, each block of 85,000 acre-feet equals 1 foot of elevation. So last year’s conservation added 12 feet to Mead, compared to a scenario in which the three states use their full entitlement.
The conservation tool box that the states have employed has a range of instruments. Cities have provided incentives to remove grass lawns and replace inefficient toilets, showerheads, and washing machines. In Imperial Irrigation District, farmers have lined earthen canals with concrete to prevent seepage and they have agreed to fallow land to save water. Those measures, in both town and country, have helped to reduce demand. Supplies, on the other hand, have been bolstered by more investment in recycling and reuse, groundwater treatment, and desalination. As a whole, the seven states in the watershed came together in 2019 to modify rules for mandatory water-use restrictions that kick in as Lake Mead drops.
The decline in Colorado River water consumption mirrors regional and national trends. In Metropolitan Water District’s service area in Southern California, water use per person fell from about 181 gallons per person per day in the mid-1990s to 131 gallons in 2018, a drop of 27 percent. Colorado River consumption on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, in Arizona, is down about 20 percent since 2016.
According to Tom Ley, a water consultant to the tribes, the decline is due to changes in farming practices and participation in a land fallowing program that will see 10,000 acres taken out of production in the next three years. The tribes’ decrease in consumptive water use “may look even more dramatic once the 2020 report comes out,” Ley told Circle of Blue.
All of these actions amount to a shift in the perception of what’s possible, Fleck said.
“It shows that the expectation that a growing population and a robust agricultural economy require more water is wrong,” explained Fleck, who is optimistic about the basin’s capacity to wield the tools of conservation effectively. Environmental doom is not the inevitable outcome, he says. “We’re seeing success in the transition away from the tragedy narrative,” he added.
Still, there are minefields to navigate. There are dozens of proposals in the upper basin states to withdraw more water from the river, which, if they were built, would further stress supplies. Some of the water conserved in Lake Mead is stored as a credit that participating agencies can theoretically draw upon in the future. How agencies handle those withdrawals, especially if large requests are made as lake levels plummet, is an uncertainty. On top of that, a warming climate will suck more moisture from the basin, even before rain and snow reach the river.
A hot, dry spring this year in the upper basin is evidence of what aridity can do. Snowpack in the basin’s headwaters was roughly average on April 1 and runoff into Lake Powell, a key water supply indicator, was expected to be 78 percent of normal. But then dry conditions arrived in April and May. Combined with dehydrated soils, which took their share of water, the runoff forecast by June 1 had diminished to just 57 percent of normal.
Those climate signals are the counterbalance to the conservation success so far. Water managers, now wary, know the risk.
“Just hopefully we don’t get a string of dry years coming back,” Hasencamp said.
The water has made development possible and is used for farms, homes and businesses. Meanwhile, recreation has risen to over 4 million annual visitors in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with tourists bringing in over $420 million to local communities.
But climate scientists studying the Colorado River find the lake’s water source is quickly declining…
According to Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, the lake is crucial for honoring the commitments laid out in that Colorado River Compact.
“Lake Powell is what the upper basin considers its bank account for meeting required deliveries to the three lower basin states. So, it’s essential to the management of the river,” Udall said.
When Lake Powell reached capacity on June 22, 1980, it was a wetter period of time for the region. Today, the lake is just above half full, and a large part of that is because of climate change.
“Since the year 2000, the flow of the river is roughly down 20% and about half of that decline is due to higher temperatures,” Udall said.
And as states continue to use the water, lower flows mean there is less to store in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Even though extreme dry and wet years have fluctuated, the West is generally getting drier, said John Fleck, the director of water resources at the University of New Mexico.
“We really need to call [what we’re experiencing] aridification — the drying out of the Colorado River Basin because of climate change, we can’t just call it ‘drought’ anymore,” Fleck said. “It appears to be this permanent phenomenon that’s lowering the lake levels. You should not expect it to return to high lake levels over long periods of time. That’s just not something we can expect to happen.”
While the river flow has declined, the demand for water has increased with regional growth. Upper and lower basin states are making drought contingency plans to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels.
Udall said states will also have to rethink those original water allocations from the 1920s.
“It’s hard to balance the equities of trying to respect these agreements that people have planned on versus changing circumstances that make these agreements totally inappropriate for right now. And I don’t know what the answer is but something’s gotta give.”
Lexi Peery is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER’s Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow Lexi on Twitter @LexiFP
For the second time, the state’s top water cop has directed the Western Slope’s oldest and most valuable water rights to be left off the once-a-decade abandonment list. That means hundreds of these mostly irrigation water rights have been granted immunity — even though they are no longer being used — from the threat of “use it or lose it,” further enshrining them in the state’s system of water administration and dealing a blow to the validity of the well-known adage.
Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If it hasn’t, it could end up on the decennial abandonment list, which is scheduled to come out in July.
But a November 2018 email from state engineer Kevin Rein to all four Western Slope division engineers instructs them to not include pre-compact rights on the abandonment list. That includes all the water rights in the Yampa/White/Green, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan/Dolores river basins.
“Since the nature of the pre-compact water rights is unique in Colorado when it comes to administration of the Colorado River Compact, and in recognition of the fact that the value of the rights could benefit all water users in Colorado, as opposed to only the owner of the water right, I will ask that you direct your staff to do no further investigation of pre-compact water rights and to not include them in the Division Engineers Proposed Abandonment list for 2020,” the email reads.
A primary job of the state and division engineers is to administer Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.
Rein said he talked with major water providers and managers along the Front Range and on the Western Slope before making the decision, but he would not say which ones or anything about the nature of those conversations.
Former state engineer Dick Wolfe issued a similar directive regarding the 2010 abandonment list, meaning Colorado’s water rights that date to before June 25, 1929 — when Congress ratified the Colorado River Compact — have enjoyed an extra level of protection from state-led abandonment for two decades.
“We need to allow for the fact that if those water rights are abandoned and taken off the tabulation, then that amount of water is no longer available to Colorado,” Rein said.
But what exactly the value of unused, pre-compact water rights could have to all Colorado water users remains unclear. Post-compact water rights, meaning those after June 25, 1929, are still eligible for the abandonment list.
According to Rein, the decision to include water rights on an abandonment list is administrative one and he has statutory authority to revise the list.
Colorado River Compact
A major fear of Colorado water managers is what’s known as a “compact call.” If the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — don’t deliver the required 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years as specified in the Colorado River Compact to the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — it could lead to a compact call. This scenario, which looms larger each year with the increasing effects of drought and climate change on an over-allocated river, could trigger involuntary cutbacks for Colorado water users.
But water rights that had been perfected before the compact was ratified are exempt from these cutbacks. And now the state is adding unused, pre-compact water rights to this exempt category. In Colorado, many of these oldest water rights belong to Western Slope agriculture.
Like moving a pawn early in a chess match, it is unclear exactly how this directive from Rein could help Colorado in the future. Nobody really knows whether or how a compact call (or negotiations among states to avoid one) might play out. Therefore, no one can say exactly what value these pre-compact water rights have to Colorado.
Water experts and managers throughout the upper and lower basin were reluctant to talk about the issue and gave diplomatic responses to questions about the sensitive political issue of interstate compact compliance.
“I don’t know the answer,” Rein said. “I think there’s general agreement that these water rights may have value in a compact-call scenario. I don’t know because of the complexities of it.”
Some water experts say preserving these pre-compact water rights, even though they aren’t being used, could give Colorado stronger footing in potential negotiations with lower basin states by propping up Colorado’s consumptive-use tally on paper.
“I would say it’s a conservative approach and it might help in your negotiations with other states,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. “You would be making the argument that we have this portfolio of water rights, these are still on the books. But again, you’re trying to forecast how a negotiation might proceed, and I think to meaningfully comment on that would be almost impossible right now.”
Preserving these irrigation water rights also means they would be available to transfer to other users in the future, such as Front Range water providers — whose water rights are mostly post-1929 and therefore vulnerable to cutbacks under a compact call — as the state continues to urbanize.
In a prepared statement, Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the water provider, which supplies water to 1.4 million people, “is supportive of the state’s efforts to protect Colorado’s pre-compact rights. This approach will benefit and help provide additional security for Colorado River water users on the West Slope and Front Range.”
Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University, agreed that hanging onto those pre-compact water rights could be in the state’s best interest.
“The idea of holding as many of those pre-compact rights in place makes sense from a purely Colorado-centric point of view,” said Waskom. “We still don’t know what a compact call or curtailment would look like, so we are going to stay as conservative and protective as we can.”
The Colorado River Water Conservation District is in favor of Rein’s directive, according to general counsel Peter Fleming. The Glenwood Springs-based River District works to protect water rights on the Western Slope, which often means advocating for agriculture interests.
But Fleming brings up an interesting point: The value of water rights in Colorado is based on them being used. If these water rights still exist on paper but haven’t been used in a decade — in some cases, two decades — what is their value?
“There’s this notion that pre-compact water rights are sacrosanct and very important, and that’s true if they have continued to be used and historically consumed,” Fleming said. “But you don’t just make water available by saying these rights that haven’t been used for X number of years still exist. So, I guess I would say it’s a risk-avoidance strategy, but it’s an unproven strategy.”
Rein’s directive also helps debunk the adage “use it or lose it.” While the pre-compact rights are not being used, they also are no longer in danger of being lost. The threat of the state taking away a water right has now disappeared for Western Slope pre-compact irrigation rights.
The often-misunderstood tenet “use it or lose it” is embodied by the abandonment process.
Some water users believe that if they don’t divert the full amount they are entitled to — even if they don’t always need that much — the state will take it away and it will be available to another water user. But the concept is much more nuanced than that.
Colorado water law says abandonment is “the termination of a water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner thereof to discontinue permanently the use of all or a part of the water available.”
Just not using the water will not lead to abandonment; there must be an intent to abandon the right.
For a water user to keep their water right, they must put the water to “beneficial use,” which in the case of irrigation water means growing crops. If the water has not been used for 10 years — meaning there are no diversion records and the local water commissioner does not see evidence of water use on their site visits — division engineers could presume that the water right has been abandoned. They put it on the state’s initial abandonment list, which is updated every 10 years and published in local newspapers.
Water-right holders then have one year to file an objection to their listing in writing with the division engineer.
“We don’t like close calls, so if they diverted the water 11 years ago, we are going think, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ because we are talking about somebody’s property right,” said Alan Martellaro, Division Engineer for Water Division 5.
After working through the objections with water-right holders, the division engineer publishes the revised abandonment list. If a water-right holder still protests their placement on the list, they can go to water court to argue that they did not intend to abandon the water right.
For the 2010 Division 5 abandonment list, Martellaro said the pre-compact rights comprised easily half the list before Wolfe instructed division engineers to take them off. The 2011 revised Division 5 abandonment list included about 75 water rights, one-third of which were related to the now-defunct Mid-Continent mine on Coal Creek near Redstone where a 1981 explosion killed 15 miners.
The 2020 abandonment list is expected to come out in July.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story appeared in the June 22 edition of The Aspen Times.
That saying is at the heart of how access to water is managed in the western U.S. Laws that govern water in more arid states, like Colorado, incentivize users to always take their full share from rivers and streams, or risk the state rescinding it. The threat comes in the form of a once-a-decade document that lists those users on the brink of losing their access to one of the region’s most precious resources.
It’s called the Decennial Abandonment List — and being included on it strikes fear and paranoia into rural pockets of the state, where farmers and ranchers depend on water for their livelihoods. Farmers trade tales of neighbors who’ve been mistakenly listed, with a notice sent to a wrong address, and who eventually see their water rights effectively canceled. Abandonment horror stories are akin to urban — or in this case, rural — legend.
Western Colorado water lawyer Rob Pierce says there’s one thing his clients, mostly farmers and ranchers, are always asking him about.
“The whole concept of abandonment,” Pierce said. “It gets mentioned all the time.”
Pierce practices for the Grand Junction-based firm Dufford Waldeck, and he said interest in abandonment reaches its apex right before the state releases the list. Colorado’s initial abandonment list is scheduled for July 1, the first time it’s been updated since 2010. Preparations for this year’s list began in 2018.
By law, state regulators are required to compile the list every 10 years. It details all the water rights no longer being used to irrigate crops, flow through city plumbing systems or cool turbines in factories and power plants. If they’re determined to no longer be in use, they’re scrubbed from the record, and can’t be used again. Because the stakes are so high, Pierce said scuttlebutt about who’s on it and who’s not starts early…
The idea behind the abandonment list is rooted in Western water law. Ever since the 1800s, when the concept of prior appropriation became the dominant methodology to divvy up water in the region, Westerners have been able to petition for rights based on their ability to put it to “beneficial use.” Not using it? Then you can lose it.
But like many old adages in the West’s water lore, Pierce said, it’s more complicated than it sounds…
“It’s not as easy as ‘use it or lose it’ makes it sound I think,” [Kara] Godbehere said. “That terminology is maybe a little inflammatory or misleading because it’s not as though without you realizing it, your water right would just slip out of your hands.”
It’s actually pretty difficult to lose it, Godbehere said. First, a user has to stop diverting the water for a long time. She points out abandonment lists come out once in a decade, and it sometimes takes an even longer period of 15 to 20 years to establish non-use. Users aren’t likely to put their right in jeopardy unless there’s a strong pattern of non-use, she said. And, even more importantly, she said, you have to intend to abandon it. It’s not an accident.
“It’s not as though it just sort of disappears one day and somebody is left wondering, where did my water go?” Godbehere said…
Rights can either be fully or partially abandoned as well. If a farmer switches to a more water-efficient crop, like replacing a field of alfalfa hay with hemp for example, the water consumed over time could be less. And the water right used to irrigate that field could end up being partially, not completely, abandoned.
More than 2,700 individual water rights were initially listed as abandoned on the 2010 list. After going through a court process, where people who think they’ve been erroneously included have time to appeal, the list was whittled down to roughly 2,200 water rights that were officially declared abandoned, according to records from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The vast majority of those rights were from farms and ranches, used to irrigate crops or pastureland. Agriculture uses about 80% of all available water in Colorado…
The abandonment list allows his department to clean up the books every now and then, and remove old rights from the record. Without abandonment, Rein said, a situation could arise where someone with old water rights, who hadn’t used them in a long time, all of a sudden starts using them again. That new use could upend how a whole water system functions, leaving some users short…
This year’s list also reflects some ongoing uncertainty in the realm of Western water politics. Earlier this year Rein sent a message to his division engineers, the state officials who compile the abandonment lists in their regions, telling them not to abandon rights that pre-date the 1929 Boulder Canyon Project Act, the piece of legislation that authorized the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
Colorado is still uncertain what role abandonment might play in the hypothetical legal battle that could result from a violation of the Colorado River compact, which spells out a certain amount of water the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are expected to send downriver to Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.
Those pre-1929 rights are called “present-perfected rights,” and likely aren’t subject to any sort of curtailment that would result from a compact call on the river. They’re some of the oldest, and most valuable, water rights in the entire Colorado River watershed.
But how those rights play into it is still unknown. Rein said after consulting with lawyers at the Colorado attorney general’s office, he instructed his division engineers not to include them. The same thing happened in 2010, so for more than 20 years, those pre-1929 rights haven’t been included on the list.
How do those present-perfected rights benefit Colorado’s standing in a protracted legal battle over the management of the Colorado River?
“That’s where I need to just honestly tell you, I don’t know,” Rein said. “And I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t know.”
“The most valuable thing that people have on a farm or ranch, is the water right,” said Jeni Arndt, a Democratic state representative from Fort Collins.
In general, the more water you have rights to, the more money it’s worth. The actual value can vary depending on drought conditions, and whether nearby residential development or other new demands for water are coming online. So if the volume is tied to a dollar amount, and a user can be paid big sums of money to transfer their right to a new use, why would anyone ever want to conserve it?
Click here for all the inside skinny and to read the EIS:
The public comment period for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project will close at 11:59 p.m. MDT on September 8, 2020
The Bureau of Reclamation, on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has issued a Notice of Availability of the draft Environmental Impact Statement/draft Resource Management Plan Amendment for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The Department is seeking public comment on the draft EIS/draft RMPA during a 90-day public comment period that will close at 11:59 pm MDT on September 8, 2020.
State and local water officials are pleased with the results of the draft environmental impact statement, more commonly referred to as an EIS, while opponents of the project carry a different view.
“(This) is an important milestone because we can get a permit,” said Brock Belnap, an associate general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “The law requires the federal government to study all the various impacts on the environment the project might affect.”
Based on those environmental impacts, the federal government must establish whether a proposed project is warranted…
“We’re very pleased that the environmental impact statement recognizes that Washington County has a need for the project,” Belnap said.
The EIS also finds Washington County is able to pay for the pipeline project as long as the projected growth continues, Belnap said…
There are two courses recommended for the Lake Powell Pipeline to take. One is the Southern Alternative and the other is the Highway Alternative. While both routes start at Lake Powell and end at Sand Hollow Reservoir, they also either pass through or close to lands held sacred by Native Americans in Arizona.
The Southern Alternative, which is the preferred alternative, travels south of the Kaibab Paiute Reservation along a preexisting utility corridor. The Highway Alternative would take the pipeline along Arizona 389, which cuts across the reservation…
The Kaibab Band stated in the supplement that the Lake Powell Pipeline will create an imbalance by “moving the Colorado River from where the creator placed it across a hundred miles of landscape and depositing it where it does not belong. … This action will make the river angry and confused, the results of which are unknown but clearly a source of imbalance in the world.”
There is currently a water rights change application before Utah’s state engineers that would allow just over 86,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River above the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to flow down to Lake Powell.
Utah already has rights to that water, Belnap said. If the application is approved, the point of diversion – the location where the state would be allowed to draw water from – would shift from the Green River to Lake Powell…
The Utah Rivers Council, along with over environmental advocacy groups, have sent petitions to Teresa Wilhelmsen, the state engineer, asking her to deny the application.
“Climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado River because it’s reducing the snowpack of the entire Colorado River Basin,” Frankel said. “As the flows of the river drop, it means that there is less water available to divert. This draft EIS totally shirks the responsibility to determine whether there’s water available in the Colorado River to put in a pipeline.”
There are many peer-reviewed studies available that state there won’t be enough water in the Colorado River to support the pipeline due to climate change, Frankel said. Climate change data used in the draft EIS concerning the subject either ignores these studies or takes from a study that is at least a decade out of date, he said.
FromAspen Journalism (Heather Sackett/Luke Runyon). Click through to play the recording and for the great photo gallery showing farms purchased by Water Asset Management:
For five years, Zay Lopez tended vegetables, hayfields and cornfields, chickens, and a small flock of sheep here on the western edge of Colorado’s Grand Valley — farming made possible by water from the Colorado River.
Lopez has a passion for agriculture, and for a while, he carved out a niche with his business, The Produce Peddler, trucking veggies seven hours away to a farmers market in Pinedale, Wyoming.
Lopez also moonlights as a Realtor, with his finger on the pulse of the local real estate market. A few years ago, he noticed a strange new phenomenon. Much of the irrigated agricultural land sold in the valley — such as parcels just down the road from his farm — wasn’t being bought by another farmer. Instead, his new neighbor was Water Asset Management, a New York City-based hedge fund with deep pockets.
When Lopez and his wife Leah grew tired of trying to make ends meet, they decided to pack up and move to southern Colorado to grow hemp. They, too, sold their 26-acre farm to WAM.
“It was hard to make the mortgage payment plus all of our other payments, and I didn’t see — with our current model of what we were doing — how we could get out of that hole,” he said. “Selling the farm wasn’t really a choice. We had to do it.”
Lopez’s recent sale is the continuation of a trend that has made some in the agricultural communities west of Grand Junction nervous; has created a buzz among water managers; and has led state lawmakers to pass a bill looking at strengthening Colorado’s anti-water-speculation law.
WAM is buying irrigated land as an investment in the future potential value of the water. Although the company isn’t doing anything illegal, its actions have rekindled deep-seated and long-held fears about water in the West — that it could hasten the death of agricultural communities’ way of life and create an unregulated market for water that would drive up prices and drive out family farms.
Because of these sensitive issues, many people in the Grand Valley are reluctant to talk about WAM and what it is doing. Meetings have erupted in anger, some who have sold have become social pariahs, and top water officials from the valley’s canal companies refuse to talk to reporters on the record. For a while, a local rancher was actively updating a website “wall of shame” for people involved in Grand Valley water deals.
“They are the same concerns that have existed since the 1930s,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center. “The east slope municipal diverters or an investment firm — it doesn’t matter who it is — are going to be able to offer more money for water than you could derive from farming or ranching. The concern is that if that becomes a trend, then the whole economy of the Western Slope changes and the agriculture economy will be very different and smaller than it is now.”
The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to KUNC and partial funding for Castle’s work. A member of the Walton family currently provides funding to Aspen Journalism via the Catena Foundation.
Since 2017, WAM has spent $16.6 million buying up 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. The company is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the nonprofit canal company that delivers water to many Grand Valley irrigators.
WAM now owns 1,659 acres in the GVWUA delivery area, which according to its website has 23,341 irrigated acres. That means the hedge fund owns about 7% of the land irrigated by the Government Highline Canal.
WAM, whose headquarters is on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, says it “seeks to be a leader in managing global water investments that solve water quality and availability issues,” according to its website. WAM is run by co-founder and principal Disque Deane Jr., while Matthew Ketellapper has been doing much of the “boots on the ground” work in the Grand Valley as the company’s Colorado asset manager.
Deane has been involved in water markets in the West for years, buying water and land tied to water rights. He doesn’t give many interviews, but according to a 2016 ProPublica article, “debt, death and divorce” has become his sort of motto, because those circumstances drive people to sell.
WAM are cash buyers — a rare offer in this rural area. In many cases, WAM makes improvements to irrigation infrastructure, such as adding center pivots and lining ditches, and leases the land back to farmers to keep it in agricultural production.
Grand Valley’s farmland is expansive, with views stretching west to Utah, north to the Book Cliffs and south to Colorado National Monument. It is also exceedingly dry. The area where Lopez’s former farm is located was once a community of homesteaders known as New Liberty, who eked out a living by dryland farming before the construction of irrigation infrastructure, a notion at which Lopez marvels.
Not much would grow here without the region’s two main irrigation canals, which draw water from the Colorado River: Government Highline Canal and Grand Valley Irrigation Canal. The bigger of the two, the 55-mile-long Government Highline, snakes through the northern part of the valley and is managed by GVWUA. One hundred and fifty miles of ditches known as laterals bring water from the main canal to individual farms.
In mid-March, before the water began flowing in the canals and bringing the annual green return of irrigated agriculture to this valley, the air was thick with smoke as farmers burned their ditches and the earth was dusty, brown and parched.
What leaves people scratching their heads is this: How does a New York City investment firm plan to make money from marginal desert land in western Colorado?
“Everyone is very cautious about what these guys from New York are doing out here buying up our ground,” Lopez said. “I mean, honestly, it’s still kind of a mystery what their overall vision is.”
‘Temporary, voluntary, compensated’
The key to WAM’s overall vision may lie in demand management, a state program still in the investigation and feasibility stage.
At the heart of such a program envisioned by state officials — and designed to be “temporary, voluntary and compensated” — is the concept of paying irrigators to use less water by fallowing fields. By doing so, there will be more water in the Colorado River flowing downstream to be stored in Lake Powell in an effort to bolster reservoir levels and help Colorado meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
The future of the demand management feasibility investigation is unclear because the state on May 1 cut its budget by $750,000 due to the COVID-19-caused state financial crisis.
The thing many water managers and users in Colorado fear most is what’s known as a compact call. Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are required to deliver 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). If the Upper Basin can’t deliver because of drought, climate change or any other reason, it could lead to a compact call, triggering involuntary cutbacks and an interstate legal quagmire that could drag on for decades.
A new demand management program would allow Colorado to send water to a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell that would act as a modest insurance policy to help protect the Upper Basin against a compact call.
The Grand Valley, which takes its name from the “Grand River,” the historical name for the Colorado River, is well-positioned for a demand management program. Water left in the river at this location is almost certain to reach Lake Powell because there are few major diversions between here and the giant reservoir.
And entities in the Grand Valley have rights to a lot of water. With 1912 adjudication dates, Grand Valley irrigation districts are some of the most-senior water rights on the Colorado River and can call about 2,200 cubic feet per second down through the river system.
There is some precedent that a demand management program would work in the Grand Valley, as some irrigators here have participated in two different experimental pay-to-fallow programs undertaken by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the GVWUA. These types of programs have intense interest from many sectors, including municipalities, which often see transferring water from agriculture as a viable way to increase their supplies, as well as from environmental organizations that would like to see more water stay in the river.
Returns on water
Since 2017, WAM has made investments in Grand Valley agriculture, choosing to make purchases of parcels in batches every few months. But in the past six months, the hedge fund has taken one step that signals what could be a renewed effort to sway Western water rules in its favor.
WAM recently brought onto its team a heavy hitter in the world of Colorado River politicking: Denver-based attorney James Eklund.
Eklund is the former director of the state’s top water policy agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and served as the state’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, another powerful policymaking agency on the river. He was one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, the document that made the case for a demand management program throughout the Upper Basin. Soon after he left these public posts, he began representing WAM as counsel.
Eklund, who comes from a Western Slope ranching family, says WAM’s strategy is to buy irrigated land and then pump money into cutting-edge technology and practices, thereby increasing irrigation efficiency and crop yield. The leftover water could be, in exchange for payment, sent downstream under a demand management program.
“I definitely think that if there’s a program that pays farmers, (WAM is) interested in it — and for good reason,” Eklund said. “They want to make sure their investment is generating the types of returns that their investors expect.”
That strategy doesn’t sit well with Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. His organization’s mission is to protect water interests on the Western Slope, which often means protecting agricultural interests. He worries that WAM’s land buys are being done with the intent to separate the water from the land and that the private equity fund does not have the community’s best interest at heart.
“I think a charitable view would be that they are engaging in the acquisition of private property in a capitalistic society, and they have the right to do that,” Mueller said. “And that might be as charitable as I could get with them.”
So far, WAM has been keeping the land in agricultural production, much the same as it had been with previous owners. According to Colorado water law, to retain its agricultural water rights, the company must continue to put the water to “beneficial use,” or, in other words, utilize the water to keep growing crops.
And Mueller’s fear of separating water from land isn’t currently possible under the rules of GVWUA, where three-quarters of the land purchased by WAM sits. Under that organization’s rules, the water cannot be sold separately from the land; you must own the land to get the associated water.
Without access to GVWUA records, it is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out exactly how much water WAM has the rights to. Class 1 land irrigated by GVWUA comes with 4 acre-feet of water per acre each irrigation season.
There is not a way to tell from publicly available property records how much of the land WAM has purchased is irrigated Class 1 land. But if all the land WAM has purchased is Class 1, then it would have at least 6,636 acre-feet of water.
Eklund said the amount of water held by WAM is akin to financial information, which the hedge fund, per its policy, won’t disclose. GVWUA director Mark Harris and the organization’s counsel, Kirsten Kurath have both repeatedly declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. However, Kurath, said in an email that GVWUA is aware of and monitoring activities within its district.
Another lingering, hard-to-answer question is how much WAM’s water is worth. Under the System Conservation Pilot Program, run by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Grand Valley farmers were paid $200 for every acre-foot of water they left in the river. Using this number as a benchmark, WAM’s 6,636 acre-feet of water could currently be worth more than $1.3 million. But that price the program paid to farmers was to lease it for only one year, which could bring the true value of the transferred water to tens of millions of dollars, experts say. How much it could be worth in a hotter, drier future is unknown.
“A lot of the crops we grow are not very profitable, so I think they are projecting, hey, this water is going to be more valuable than even the crops they are growing with it,” Lopez said.
WAM’s land buys have not escaped the attention of Colorado lawmakers, who say what the company is doing is legally dubious. State Sen. Kerry Donovan is a rancher who represents District 5, a stretch of rural mountains, agricultural valleys and ski towns on the Western Slope.
In the 2020 legislative session, before the coronavirus pandemic slowed legislative activity, she sponsored Senate Bill 48, which Gov. Jared Polis recently signed into law. The new legislation directs Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources to convene a workgroup to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law.
“I also hope (this bill) sends a message to people that might be looking to Colorado to make a quick buck that we’re not interested in that type of behavior in our state,” Donovan said. “If you’re just coming up here to buy up water to turn into a profit in the years to come for your clients, like, ‘No, thank you.’”
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
“(WAM’s) goal is to buy assets, to make money — and as much money as they can,” Donovan said. “I don’t want that type of player in the prior appropriation system, just full stop.”
WAM attorney Eklund says the investment firm’s directors are not speculators; they are farmers.
“The characterization of any farming or ranching operation that is putting water to a beneficial use as a speculator, that’s just plain-and-simple wrong,” he said. “In light of Colorado water law, this is not accurate as a description that they’re speculating here.”
Eklund sees a bigger role for WAM and other similar players in a potential future water market. He would like to see Colorado fill up that insurance pool in Lake Powell as quickly as possible and said WAM can help the state do that.
“(WAM is) looking at how they can move water down to Lake Powell to avert a crisis,” Eklund said. “And they’re trying to make sure that we’re becoming more resilient in the agricultural economy in the Grand Valley by strategically planning for how that water gets into the account in Lake Powell.”
The type of land purchase that WAM usually pursues has recently shifted. All of the Grand Valley land that the company bought up until this year had been irrigated with water from the Government Highline Canal, where the right to water depends on how much irrigated acreage someone has and where water is tied to the land.
But WAM’s most recent purchase in January was a $6 million deal on 541 acres in Fruita and irrigated by the Grand Valley Irrigation Company Canal, the other big player in Grand Valley agriculture. In its delivery system, shares of water can be bought and sold, and the amount of water is not tied to the land. It marks a departure from the company’s previous purchases, even as Eklund maintains it’s not a change in WAM’s strategy.
“I would say it’s very significant,” Mueller said. “Land that is irrigated under a private water right like the GVIC, that becomes more challenging and more threatening from a permanent-dry-up perspective.”
But even as suspicion and skepticism run high, some Grand Valley farmers, including Lopez, say WAM has been a good neighbor so far.
“Absolutely, they are committed to the future of agriculture in the Grand Valley. They are fronting a lot of money to do these irrigation projects and leasing the ground back to the farmers who had farmed it already,” Lopez said. “Now, is that just to look good to the community and their investors? I have no idea.”
This story is part of a series on water investment in the West, produced by KUNC in Greeley, KJZZ in Arizona, The Nevada Independent and Aspen Journalism.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues.
KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
The water rights behind the proposed Lake Powell pipeline are not actually coming from the project’s namesake lake, but rather from the major reservoir upstream on the Green River.
Now, Utah water officials’ new request to overhaul those rights has handed opponents a fresh opportunity to thwart the proposed pipeline just as federal officials are about to release a long-awaited environmental review of the $1.2 billion project, which would funnel 82,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to St. George.
The request, known as a change application, seeks to shift the the water rights’ “point of diversion” from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to a spot 400 miles downstream behind Glen Canyon Dam. The change, which also keys into where and how the water would be used, is needed to fit the goals of the pipeline, which is to bolster water supplies for Utah’s mushrooming Washington County.
The application was filed now because the timing made sense at this stage in the project’s development and has no bearing on whether the pipeline gets built, according to Joel Williams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
Environmental groups hope to block or at least delay the project’s approval if they can persuade Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen to deny the change application filed April 13. Exhibit A in the many protests filed is the Colorado River system’s chronically diminishing flows in the face of climate change, long-term drought and overallocation…
A 1922 interstate compact divvies up water flowing in the Colorado River and its many tributaries among seven basin states and Mexico. For decades, Utah has underutilized its share, pegged at 23% of the Upper Basin’s flows above 7.5 million acre-feet, while the three Lower Basin states have historically drawn water in excess of their allocations, largely to fuel urban growth and corporate agriculture.
Here’s an opinion piece from Denise Fort that’s running in The Aspen Daily News:
Each spring, the acequias in New Mexico carry cold, clear snowmelt to freshly furrowed fields on small farms. The centuries-old irrigation culture is recognized in state law and supported by strong communities.
These farms often come to mind when we think about agriculture in the West: a cool riparian valley with adjacent fields and people rooted in the land, growing crops that may be sold at a farmer’s market in a nearby town.
So when former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested in a recent Writers on the Range opinion piece published in the Aspen Daily News on May 12, that a portion of agricultural water rights should be transferred to urban areas, it no doubt conjured up some strong emotions — small family farms drying up so that suburbanites could water their lawns and golf courses.
But Secretary Babbitt’s proposal makes sense, and he is right about the need to recognize the mismatch in population in the Colorado River Basin between the urbanized West and rural areas where most of the basin’s water is allocated. He is also right that the Colorado River cannot continue serving 40 million people, irrigating the same acreage, and meeting our aspirations for healthy rivers, in this time of megadrought.
There are a lot of caveats to his idea of people voluntarily retiring irrigation rights, including the need to create a process that allows full public participation. But unless we begin to retire irrigated acreage with a carefully managed strategy, we will have showdowns among states and tribes that share the basin’s water and increasingly desiccated rivers.
The real obstacle to Babbitt’s proposal springs from our romanticized vision of what agriculture looks like in the West. New Mexico may have acequia-fed fields, but it’s also in the nation’s top 10 for the number of dairy cattle, the products of which are largely exported to other states.
For every rain-fed cornfield sprouting emerald-like in the Arizona desert, there are tens of thousands of acres of alfalfa fields guzzling up millions of gallons of water per year. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of food, which means that the arid West is, in effect, exporting our water via huge, corporate farms.
Let’s not forget that it is agribusiness — not small farmers – that’s responsible for 80% of the water use in the West.
Meanwhile, climate change is drying up what water remains. The declining flows and warming temperatures are no longer just a contested forecast about the future, but our lived experience.
In my own corner of the West I’m astounded by how quickly desertification is occurring, with hard-packed soils where there was vegetation just a few years ago. Those obnoxious dust storms (haboobs) seem to be moving northward, leading me to tell everyone to watch Ken Burn’s powerful TV series on the Dust Bowl. Ranchers are on the front line in New Mexico, where grazing is looking more and more problematic.
Of course, water isn’t just valuable to farms and cities. The West has a huge outdoor recreation industry that depends on hiking, rafting and fishing, and our riparian areas grant solace in hectic times. Declining river flows, dried up springs and parsimonious releases for fishes detract from this sector of a growing economy.
Babbitt proposes to alleviate this situation by creating a mechanism by which farmers can lease their water rights to municipalities for a set period of time. He proposes free-market transactions — entirely voluntary and at the full discretion of each operator — funded by the federal government. I suggest that agricultural water also be made available to remain in our rivers for the health of our fragile river ecosystems.
Of course, there is a danger to a market-driven solution. If there were a federally run market in water rights, one would expect to see low-value agricultural areas to be the first to be approached for water sales.
That may be why in Europe policies explicitly protect small farms. This could lessen the departure of farmers from parts of northern New Mexico or rural areas on Colorado’s Western Slope, and other areas where small farms still exist.
No one is choosing the drought that has settled into the western United States, along with warming temperatures, wildfires and the rest of our changed climate. We have to cooperate to lessen the effect of climate on individuals and our shared environment.
That is why Bruce Babbitt’s proposal deserves a good, full-throated civic discussion. I just hope it is followed by actions to help the lands and people west of the 100th meridian thrive in the 21st century.
Denise Fort is a contributor to WritersontheRange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law and chaired President Clinton’s Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission.
No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.
The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.
Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.
The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.
Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.
Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.
It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.
The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.
In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?
Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.
Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.
Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.
From the Public Policy Institute of Caliornia (Lori Pottinger):
In 2019, California’s use of the Colorado River—a major water source for Southern California’s cities and farms—dropped to the lowest level in decades. We asked John Fleck—director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center research network—about the ongoing changes in California’s use of this water, and what it means going forward. He is the author, with Eric Kuhn, of the new book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River Basin.
PPIC: What are the main reasons Californians are using less Colorado River water?
JOHN FLECK: The biggest reason for the recent drop is that Metropolitan Water District (MWD)—the state’s biggest urban user of the river—didn’t need to take as much water in 2019. But this decline also reflects a longer term trend. Prior to the early 2000s, MWD generally took the maximum it could from the Colorado River, usually more th